Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, #1)
When I started the story, I was absolutely thrilled. The prose and the world itself had the feel of a Loreena McKennitt album: dreamy, full of old world music, but with a fully new age tone. The main character, Toby, is on the track of mysterious kidnappers who capture and enchant her for 14 years. Finally escaping her bonds, she returns to an alien world and must again find her place in it. If that is not enough, an old sometime-friend-sometime-enemy is murdered and forces Toby to find her killer.
Unfortunately, the beginning was the high point of the book for me, which seemed to grow progressively weaker from that moment forward. Several other plot threads are started, but are left to unravel on their own. You'd think that the whole kidnapping-enchantment thing might be part of the plot, but no. The kidnapees mysteriously return, and no-one bothers to ask them anything about how or why. And despite the lyrical, dreamy writing, reasonably sympathetic protagonist, and gripping beginning, for me, the lack of plot structure and backbone in the heroine left me feeling like the story had missed an opportunity.
First, although I initially liked her and really felt for her as the story kicked off, I quickly grew frustrated with Toby's ineptitude. I felt she did nothing but stumble around, get injured, and be rescued by those around her. I like relatively flawed, relatively weak protagonists, but I like them to have a reasonable amount of brains or brawn. I felt that Toby lacked both. Literally every time she is attacked, she has to be rescued by an outsider. She also never really thinks ahead or actually stops to put the pieces together. As she says herself: "I hadn't been thinking at all. I'd just been reacting." In the end, she figures out the solution using a technique she could have used at the beginning.] I like my protagonists flawed, but there has to be some baseline for competence and intelligence, and if the character is to receive adulation from everyone for their terrific prowess and daring, I'd like to see them earn it.
Toby believes herself to be dangerous and capable, but gives the reader no evidence of it. I admit inept female protagonists are an automatic trigger of rage for me. A male protagonist who loses every fight, is sick at the crime scene, and needs to be rescued every few pages is a reversal of a trope, while a woman who does the same merely reinforces the "damsel in distress" stereotype. For me, Toby's incompetence is not endearingly original. It just puts her into the same class with all of the other mouthy "heroines" who, like Leia in Star Wars, end up scantily clad and clutching some man's leg. Toby is injured over and over, and every single time, a man rescues her. And yet people act as though she is a brave, amazing, and daring heroine, apparently because of her remarkable past actions, which we never get to see. Part of her fame may stem from her own picture of herself. For example, she is literally required to solve the crime, but tells everyone she is doing it because of her principles. This little bit of hypocrisy bothered me, and I felt little sympathy for Toby when she repeatedly tried to skip out on the case but was forced back by the magical bindings. If she was not so adulated by her little world, I think I would sympathize more. Yet even as she depends completely on the people around her for everything, she is rude and mouths off to them and views herself as independent. To me, she comes off as a sullen child, yet her world universally lauds her as a valiant heroine. I would like her more if her world had recognized her failings and taken her to task for them.
There is one scene in particular that disturbs me. Toby has returned to an abusive ex-lover who took her in as a child, effectively rapes all of the children he comes across, and utilizes them as a criminal gang. A member of the gang looks at her adoringly and asks her how she got out, as she was the "only one who did". newsflash: she didn't get out. That's why she's back yet again to licking his feet and warming his bed. I find it nauseating that the narrative paints this twisted, codependent relationship as a strong woman who "escaped". This aspect of the novel, I think, so disturbed and disgusted me that the whole book left a bad taste in my mouth.
McGuire created several plot threads that were incredibly strong. I was thoroughly excited about the opening of the plot, and couldn't wait to see what she would do with these interesting events. But McGuire didn't use them. I felt that she just either provided a weak solution or left them to wither away. Granted, she may be using them to build up a very exciting meta-plot; Toby's lack of curiosity and the easy solution just seemed a letdown here. The mystery here was relatively obvious, except for an "emotional/motive-based" alibi that was thrown about before the killer was unveiled, but went totally unexplained and ignored afterward. From that one piece of unexplained contradictory evidence, I feel that McGuire's solution made no sense psychologically. McGuire apparently forgot the whole sequence where Devlin spends a hell of a lot of energy rescuing her, as well as all the other times he's had her in his clutches. Why not torture the info out of her then, or let her die? His thugs tried both. For me, it made the entire scheme incoherent and all the actions unnatural.]. In addition, the murder victim actually knew who killed her. The only reason the victim didn't just blurt it out, apparently, was to fuel the plot.
Overall, the book started strong both in terms of mystery and worldbuilding, and McGuire's lyrical style managed to capture breathtakingly beautiful and eerie scenes of San Francisco. I kept hoping that maybe, just maybe, Toby would do something that would make it worthwhile. Even if, at the bitter end, she had faced down the killer without needing to be rescued by a man, I would have forgiven all. But no. For me, the book, with its man-dependent, abuse-seeking heroine and weak mystery, felt flat and disappointing, due in no small part to its absolutely stellar beginning.