Ashes of Honor is the most recent book in the October Daye series, by Seanan McGuire.
I won’t lie to you; I love these books.
I started out liking them. Toby was a sort of protagonist I favor, all noir wounds and stupid knighthood. A friend of mine has a motto, the which applies here – “strong at the broken places.” Toby, from the opening, was a hot mess of bad experiences and well-worn flinches, but she didn’t let that stop her from doing what she knew to be right. What she knew to be necessary.
At the end of book three, An Artificial Night, I wrote an utterly incoherent fan letter to Seanan. I can’t tell you what I said, because that would spoil that book. She was very nice about it and did not seem to put me on a list of Crazy Fans We Back Away From.
An Artifical Night is a story about consequences. It’s also one of the most complicated, nuanced stories I have ever read about the thing it’s actually about. Which is not merely the fae and their rules and kingdoms.
When I picked up book four, Late Eclipses, I was still reeling from book three. But as the story progressed, I began to notice something. Something important.
These characters, they were growing and changing. The things that happened to them in the earlier books mattered. This was not the Monty Haul, Gotta Top The Last Book’s Villain, Boss Monster at the End of the Level school of series writing. This was a story about perfect real people and their perfectly real, albeit very exciting, lives.
It takes a while for me to figure that out, with a new series. I mean, the first book sets you up, the second book is often a bit muddled, and frequently the third book is either amazing or a failure. After that, well, sometimes you get “hmm, she killed a kraken in book six, in book seven she should kill a WERE-KRAKEN, that’ll be more exciting!” Sometimes, by book twelve, even the most devoted reader feels that there are only so many interesting permutations of sex available, no matter how many non-humans one puts into the bed, and that perhaps the author would be relieved if the character went into monastic seclusion for a novel or two.
The October Daye series does not have that problem.
No, Toby’s story is more what I think of as a Vorkosigan story. There are plots, and they happen, and they are crucially important to the lives of the characters. But interwoven with the plots are those characters’ lives. Their growth, struggles, realizations. The changes they undergo as they grow through and past and with the things they have done and endured.
There’s a principle in GURPS, the Generic Universal Role-Playing Game, of Ads and Disads — advantages and disadvantages. If you want to give your character an advantage, that costs points. You can get yourself more points by accepting a disadvantage that imposes penalties for your character. I’ve always liked this idea. It’s a good way to keep a fictional character from overrunning the plot. And it’s a decent metaphor for growth and wisdom.
In the early Toby books I shouted at her because she was alone and rejected help and made poor decisions. In Ashes of Honor I no longer have the heart to yell at her. I bite my lip and wince, tremendously worried on her behalf. Toby’s grown and learned and changed, and that means she has more to lose. Knowledge and power and allies are wonderful, they keep us going and they watch our backs and they help us do the right and necessary things. But they can all be taken away.
Toby’s not a fool. She knows that.
And she doesn’t flinch.
I am not a cynic. I am a cranky humanist. I cry at sad stories, sure, but I cry more and harder at hopeful ones. The songs “Mary Ellen Carter”, or “Christmas in the Trenches,” or Seanan’s “Wicked Girls Saving Ourselves” all make me bawl. Not because they are sad songs, but because they tell of people who have been hurt and harmed yet decide to be more than the sum of their damage. People who know how bad bad can get, yet decide to go forth and live anyway, because, fuck it, this is their choice.
“Fuck it, this is my choice,” is the unofficial motto of Ashes of Honor, as far as I can tell.
I really, truly, love these books.