"Rosemary and Rue", the first book of the October Daye series, is an extraordinary piece of Urban Fantasy. It is sombre, complex and well written, a combination I can't resist.
The series was recommended to me as an Urban Fantasy must-read, otherwise, I wouldn't have bothered with a series centred around the Fae. Fae Fantasy seems to bring out a rose-tinted, undisciplined, acid-high hippy mindset that I have no sympathy for or it becomes a vehicle for New Adult eroticism that, even when it's done well, leaves me wanting either to laugh or to wash my hands.
The blurb wasn't encouraging, with references to Ladies and Knights and a reluctant half-blood fae PI. Yawn.
The title intrigued me. It has a Shakespearian feel to it. Rosemary and rue are two of the flowers in Ophelia's bouquet. Rosemary is for remembrance and rue is for repentance. That suggested I wasn't in for a happy-ever-after read, so I bought the audiobook version and settled down to listen.
From the beginning, it was clear that this was not a normal Urban Fantasy story with a kiss-ass heroine whose magical powers and strength of personality allow her to triumph against overwhelming odds and live to fight another day, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
October Daye is not a heroine. She's just someone trying to find a place for herself in the two worlds her half-fae half-human blood straddle. Finding a place is more about survival than ambition. October lives in a world where failure has consequences and success has a price. It is grim, unforgiving and relentless.
At the start of the book, October fails and is made to suffer consequences that would crush most of us. One of the things I admired about the book is that Seanan McGuire doesn't let her characters off the hook. Consequences are to be lived with like wounds and scars.
At first, the book seems to be about October being forced by a curse to solve the murder of a Pure-Blood Fae or die in the attempt. On this level, the book is a little flat. October bounces around the problem like a pinball, never in control and always being thrown against hard surfaces. I thought Seanan McGuire had taken Chandler's advice:
In line with the actions-have-consequences mindset, October spends as much time recovering from being hurt as she does investigating the death.
As the book progressed, I realised that the real focus of the story was October herself. She is made to re-examine the life she had before a mistake cost her everything. With each bounce of the pinball, we learn more about October's world and she learns more about herself.
What she learns and what she does with it bring us back to the "Rosemary and Rue" of the title: she honours her past, assessing it without nostalgia; she repents her failures without wallowing in regret and she moves on. October knows that while the life you've lived explains the scars you carry, it is your choices about what to do next that makes being alive worthwhile. The choices she makes show an acceptance of "the balance of her blood" rather than a desire to be someone else. It's a good start.
The world.building in "Rosemary and Rue" is skilfull and original. October takes for granted abuse of power and levels of punishment that makes the "magical" world very far away from Disney Princesses and much closer to the Brothers Grimm. To me it seemed to be to Urban Fantasy what Cyberpunk was to Science Fiction - a grimier, more credible version that was less about escapism and more about mirroring how the normal world works.
So now I'm a fan of Seanan McGuire with a lot of good books to look forward to.
I strongly recommend the audiobook version of "Rosemary and Rue". Mary Robinette Kowal's narration is pretty close to perfect. She amplifies the unusual rhythms of the prose and gives October a unique voice.