Review: Rosemary and Rue

This review contains spoilers.

TW: sexual abuse.

I finally got round to starting Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, which came highly recommended by my TolkSoc friends and geekdom in general, and which has been on my must-read-series list for, oh, quite a long time.

The eponymous October “Toby” Daye is a changeling: half human, half fae. She can pass for human in the right light, or with just a little bit of magic. As Rosemary and Rue begins, she’s working nights in a 7-Eleven, hiding from her fae heritage, trying to make ends meet. It’s not working out great, as you might expect, and everything changes when a fae aristocrat, Evening Winterrose, is murdered. Evening’s last act is to lay a curse on Toby – she has to find the killer, or die in the attempt.

It’s obvious from the word go that McGuire is not! fucking! around! here: the novel literally starts with Our Heroine being turned by an evil fae into a koi carp for fourteen years, losing her human husband and child in the process, which is, you know, fairly traumatic. And it goes on to do some pretty heavy lifting for a novel that’s so squarely, unpretentiously of its genre.

At its heart Rosemary and Rue is a novel about class. As a changeling, Toby’s considered a second-class citizen by most of the pureblooded fae. Her magic’s nowhere near as strong, and though she’ll live a couple of centuries that’s nothing compared to the near-immortality of the purebloods. More importantly, changelings are shunned, pushed to the borders of fae society even as they’re unable to live fulfilling human lives.

Shunned by both races, many changeling children end up at Home. And this is what I really want to talk about, because this is where the novel does some of its best, and also its most troubling, work.

Home is run by a changeling called Devin. Devin is, to put it baldly, an abuser. He takes changeling children in, teaches them to do his work (which mainly involves politicking with the various faerie courts), teaches them to fear him, and rapes some of them. Toby spent much of her teenagerhood at Home, as Devin’s favourite and his “lover” (as she puts it to herself). She’s known at Home as the only one who ever escaped Devin’s clutches, rescued as she was by a friend of her fae mother.

So when Toby finds that her only option for solving Evening’s murder is to go Home and call in some favours…well, there are a couple of ways this could have gone. Devin acts every inch the concerned lover towards Toby – she’s seriously injured several times in quick succession, and he pulls out all the stops to save her. He does her favours without asking for anything in return – something that’s practically unheard of amongst the fae. For a while, it sort of looks like we’re maybe supposed to root for Devin as the romantic interest, which, given everything we and Toby know about him, is pretty damn creepy.

But McGuire, it turns out, is better than that: in the last few chapters of Rosemary and Rue, it turns out that Devin’s been working against Toby all along. And I love how clear-eyed the novel in retrospect is about Devin’s behaviour: like any abuser’s, it’s all about power and control, and McGuire doesn’t flinch from that. I kind of wish I could give Rosemary and Rue to every teenager obsessed by Twilight.

Except I also kind of don’t, because there’s something a little reactionary going on with the treatment of Devin that I want to unpack a bit. Devin betrays Toby because he feels his lot as a changeling is unfair. He wants eternal life, a pureblood’s life, and there’s a McGuffin in the novel that can give it to him, and Toby’s in the way.

Of course Devin is a monster. But I’m a little…troubled by the idea that at least part of his monstrosity is rooted in not knowing his place. Striving for the benefits the purebloods get automatically – benefits they could share, the text suggests, with the changelings – is in itself an evil thing to do, it seems.

It’s an effect exacerbated by Toby’s relatively privileged social position: sure, she’s a changeling, but she’s got the ear of the leaders of at least three different fae realms thanks to her mother’s bloodline. Toby is not remotely in the same situation as Devin. And yet I felt that I was being encouraged to compare them: Toby is a good person because she accepts her position in life. She feels it isn’t fair, yes, but she doesn’t do anything positive to change it. Devin, on the other hand, is a monster because he’s not willing just to take the scraps thrown to him by the purebloods. The very framing of the question is suspect.

I mean: this wasn’t really something that affected how much I enjoyed Rosemary and Rue, which I did, a lot. It’s pacy and fascinating and full of faerie lore; it balances magic and modernity really quite well. And I think there’s certainly room for a more nuanced reading of Devin’s monstrosity: that it’s a symptom of the social divisions in fae society, something rotten in the state of Faerie, rather than a dramatisation of reactionary anti-social-mobility sentiment. I mean, I’ve heard that the later books double down on Rosemary and Rue‘s treatment of class, so maybe not. But I’ll still be hanging round for those later books.

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