Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire
Well, here we continue on this minor diversion from the norm. For all it’s faults, I enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy Mira Grant and thought it would be interesting to look at the author writing under her own name. Now I appreciate this is taking a risk on two counts. The first is the reason why authors choose to write under a pseudonym. They already have a good brand name for a particular type of fiction. The new work will not fit into their existing fan base’s expectations. So it must be hidden (until someone leaks the secret identity). The second is that I’m coming into an existing series which is never a good thing.
Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire (DAW, 2013) is the seventh in the October Daye urban fantasy series. This time round, we’re into the forbidden fruit of the Goblin variety, a drug that’s addictive and ultimately deadly to changelings, but merely a pleasant high for full-blooded fae. The Queen of the Mists is the pusher. Yes, it comes over as a bit of a shocker to discover a leader can stoop so low but, as the gang boss says, she needs the money and the fact a few of the changelings die is nothing to worry about. Obviously, this lack of emotion is not terribly startling. The fae are notorious for their amorality. Only their half-breed children and a few on the margins have anything approaching a conscience. It seems October, Toby to her friends, is one of these changelings, a child of a fae and a human. When she innocently complains to the Queen that someone is pushing this deadly drug, she’s given three days to get out of Dodge (well, San Francisco actually). This provokes the natural plot response. When the Luidaeg tips her off that the Queen’s right to the throne was less than solid, the hunt is on to find the rightful heir. What’s a little treason between old enemies.
Pausing for a moment, this is a hack plot idea. The Queen is an all-round evil person in charge of this small kingdom and, just when she really begins to go beyond the pale, our hero experiences the ultimate coincidence effect. The first person she talks to after being banished just happens to know the Queen is an unlawful usurper of the throne. Wow, is that a convenient piece of information, or what? And within a few more pages, our hero has tracked down the real heiress who’s been hidden away for years without anyone being able to find her. Wow, it that ever evidence the girl guide’s badge for tracking really does prove ability to find stuff and people? To say this is contrived and contorted would be an understatement.
So with Quentin, a teenage Daoine Sidhe courtier from Shadowed Hills, proving to have more maturity than previously suspected, and other minions in tow, it’s moderately action-packed as we build on the coincidences to get to the solution at the end. Because this is urban fantasy, there’s considerable focus on our hero’s relationship with Tybalt, King of Cats. Naturally, they go through the emotional wringer and emerge all the stronger for it. Does this mean the book is a waste of time? In part, yes. But despite the morass of detail about fairy lore and genealogy, there’s interest in this as an exploration of the nature of identity. As a changeling, Toby is powerless as a human and potentially powerful as a fae. The problem, as always in these situations, is to get the balance right between the two parts to give herself enough access to the magic without sacrificing her humanity.
The trigger for a more serious thread in the book is the decision of the Queen to expose our hero to the goblin fruit. As the crack cocaine of drugs, the effect on a changeling is to induce a shift to human where the effect is more pleasurable. Unfortunately, this loses the immortality feature that comes with the fairy genes: hence the high death rate. So our hero loses most of her powers and almost reverts to human. Not surprisingly, this undermines her confidence in herself as a partner to Tybalt. She’s not sure he’ll still love her. It also creates problems on how to stay alive and how to fight the evil Queen and her minions as a powerless human. I thought the introduction of a highly addictive drug was a brave ploy. It could have provided a real dynamic to the narrative as she goes cold turkey. Unfortunately, the whole situation is managed and then resolved just a little too easily. Yes, there has to be a big fight, but the physical and psychological stress of having to deal with the addiction is somewhat glossed over. The gritty reality of dealing with addiction would not really fit into an urban fantasy format. That said, this is not a completely awful book about fairies and the other species that interact to form the fae as a group of kingdoms or fiefdoms. The romance does deal with the uncertainties of love in a difficult situation. So, in my usual dismissive and patronising male voice, I can say Chimes at Midnight is quite good for an urban fantasy.