"Someday I'll figure out why everything in Faerie seems to end up in San Francisco," the narrator muses in Rosemary And Rue, Seanan McGuire's debut novel. Whatever the reason, the city throngs with fae... and some of them turn deadly.
Oh, and there are spoilers in this review, mostly for the first third of the book.
Rosemary And Rue is the first book in the October Daye series, about a half-fairy, half-human detective who solves crimes at the intersection between the magic and mundane. At least, that's what happens in this first book, which involves shape shifters, sea witches, the king of cats, and a gun that shoots iron bullets (which are deadly to fairies.) McGuire's version of San Francisco, with fairie kingdoms hidden all over the Bay area and pixies hiding in Golden Gate Park, is genuinely enchanting, especially when she's bringing out the downsides of magic being everywhere. At one point, our hero, October, visits the court of the Faerie Queen, who transforms her T-shirt and jeans into a ballgown — and then doesn't change them back, forcing October to slog through mud and crime scenes wearing an impractical gown that gets increasingly muddy.
We were talking about noir fantasy a while back, and Rosemary And Rue isn't really that noir — it's more like classic urban fantasy with a murder mystery. It's not quite paranoid, dark or morally gray enough to be noir, and McGuire's characters are mostly fundamentally nice, with a few nasty quirks here and there.
Rosemary And Rue starts out with a bang, one of the best openings to a novel I've read in ages: October "Toby" Daye is working as a private detective on a case for her lead, Sylvester Torquill, whose wife and daughter have been kidnapped. Toby is tailing a suspect, Sylvester's brother Simon, and she calls her human husband and mostly human daughter to let them know she'll be late coming home. And then she follows Simon into a trap — with help from a sinister ally, he turns October into a fish, and traps her in the koi pond in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden. She stays there for the next fourteen years, until the spell finally wears off and she changes back.
Toby's husband and daughter want nothing to do with her because they think she abandoned them. And she's ashamed of her failure, so she can't go back to her friends in Faerie. Instead, she takes a job on the graveyard shift at the Safeway (when her magic can conceal her fairy features most easily) and keeps to herself. Until one of her closest friends in Faerie gets murdered and puts a binding on October — either she finds out who the killer was and brings them to justice, or she'll die too. Solving the murder, of course, means returning to the world of the fae, which is full of dark corners and deadly surprises.
The great strength of Rosemary And Rue is in its worldbuilding: Faerie San Francisco feels like a real city, and it's not hard to imagine that mythical creatures and magical glamours lurk in every alley in SOMA and behind every tree in Golden Gate Park, and super-powerful mystical forces are living in rent-controlled apartments in the Tenderloin. Every relationship in Faerie turns out to be fraught with obligations — everybody owes debts to each other, which are viewed as the worst kinds of encumbrances, and there's a taboo on saying "thank you," lest you inadvertently take on another constricting debt.
The other great thing about Rosemary And Rue is that October is a great fantasy heroine, from her contentious relationship with her cats to her many tormented Loves That Can Never Be. She's caught between her fairie and human heritage, and can never really be at home in either culture. Plus — and this is the closest the novel comes to being noir-tinged — half-blooded fairy hybrids, like October, face discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of a magical world that views them as inferior, or even worse, as a abominations. The novel is full of these cast-off, mistreated and misbegotten "changelings," and October is the biggest underdog of them all — despite having been knighted for past gallantry, that we only dimly hear about.
After exploring McGuire's fairy city for one dark murder mystery, I'm on board for more, and looking forward to seeing how October's tangled web of allegiances and obligations plays out over the course of the next few books.
Now for the bad news: Rosemary And Rue has a couple of serious flaws, on top of occasionally cheesy writing. First of all, it works much better as an urban fantasy tale than as a murder mystery: October is a terrible detective, who mostly stumbles around making a target of herself until the bad guys finally take a shot at her. She doesn't do all that great a job of collecting leads, frequently ignores the most obvious line of investigation, and needs others to point out the obvious to her. And there's really only ever one suspect in the murder who makes sense, so it's not much of a shock when it turns out to be that person.
And the other major problem is that McGuire tries so hard to make Rosemary the first book in a series, it falls a bit flat at times as a stand-alone novel. The book has an enormous, sprawling supporting cast, and October has a lengthy, involved backstory with every single one of them. There were a few moments where I thought I must have missed a page, because the narrator starts talking about a character whom she's got a history with — and then I realized the book hadn't mentioned this character before. Long after you think you've met all of October's old frenemies, the book keeps bringing in new characters who aren't new to October. And this usually means the story has to grind to a halt for a few pages, while October spoonfeeds us more stuff that happened before the book began. At times, this feels like the tenth book in a series, rather than the first. There are almost no characters in the book whom October doesn't already know.
Despite both of those issues — which feel a bit like "first novel" pains — I'm still a huge fan of the universe McGuire has created, and eager to become more acquainted with her city of fairies, rose goblins and kelpies.