Ten books into her primary series about October 'Toby' Daye and two on from the tying up of many threads in 'The Winter Long', Seanan McGuire really ought to be comfortable with her take on Faerie. I have to say that 'Once Broken Faith' is surely the quintessential Toby Daye novel, doing everything we expect while keeping us surprised and moving the series up another rung. It may not approach the literary magic that finished out 'One Salt Sea' but it's surely the best book thus far, at a point where the future is open.
While we begin with a more sustained and more grounded sense of peace and quiet than we did in the previous book, 'A Red-Rose Chain', the majority of this one takes place in a loud and noisy environment: a conclave that has been called by the High King and Queen, who have journeyed down from Toronto to lead it. The subject on everyone's lips is, of course, the cure for elf-shot that Toby's alchemist friend, Walther, discovered during what went down in the Kingdom of Silences during the prior book.
And here I'll pause to explain what that means. Oberon, the long-vanished king of all Faerie, set only one law: that the Fae not kill each other. This resonated long and hard, so that indeed the Fae rarely do that. However, as sneaky little buggers with more time on their hands than they know what to do with, they came up with a bunch of alternative solutions to the whole killing each other concept. The one that stuck best was elf-shot, created by Eira Rosynhwyr, the firstborn of Titania, known to us from the beginning of the series as Evening Winterrose, and it gets ably described here as 'Evening's greatest creation'. If you were Fae and I shot you with an arrow coated in elf-shot, you wouldn't die, but you'd spend the next one hundred years asleep. I can do a heck of a lot while you languish in slumber for a century and, hey, when you wake up, maybe I'll just shoot you with another elf-shot arrow.
Elf-shot is such a staple in Faerie that it's really structured around it. It's used as a grave insult, a declaration of war and a severe punishment. And now, thanks to Walther, it's going to become meaningless. Thus a conclave, with kings and queens and nobles from kingdoms we've never heard of all descending on the Mists to talk it out. And until they come to a conclusion, King Sollys has decreed that nobody elf-shot thus far is allowed to be woken. Guess what happens next? Oh yes, indeed, a whole bunch of people at the conclave get elf-shot.
One also gets murdered and he's a king no less, King Antonio Robinson of the Kingdom of Angels. Fortunately, Toby is inside, given that she's someone who's been previously elf-shot and subsequently woken up, so is more than appropriate to testify, even if she's a changeling. She convinces the High King to close the Mists, in order to contain the killer and allow her to figure out whodunit. She's damaged even more than she's ever been before as she does so and she ably uses the talents and skills of those inside, including her niece Karen and the Luidaeg.
Ah yes, the Luidaeg, who's fast becoming one of my favourite characters in all of fiction. Finally, she gets to do more than make a difference from the sidelines, one way or another. She's a primary character here and she's an absolute joy. She's the immortal sea witch, the scariest thing anyone in this story has ever met, but she's usually in the form of a nondescript young lady, albeit one with a no-nonsense attitude. She's the firstborn daughter of Oberon and Maeve, so the oldest thing in the Seelie Court, something that finally gets a name here. We've been introduced to some of the children of Titania and of Maeve, some of them dark and some of them light; but here is the first time we tie that to the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, the reason why the Fae live in what's already been called for many novels the Divided Kingdoms.
The Luidaeg does so much in this series, for as low a page count as she gets, but she's still a mystery. We aren't aware of the full nature of her substantial powers. We've only been given glimpses of her history. She clearly has a mission that Toby is just as clearly part of, but we don't know what that is. She's a fascinating enigma. And she has cool lines of dialogue too like, 'Never invite a death omen to a murder party.' That's the Luidaeg and McGuire had better continue to be careful or she's going to steal this entire series out from under her protégé, Toby Daye.
She is careful here and very patient. This is the most comfortable read thus far; I don't know how easy or hard it was for McGuire to write (and I'm sure it wasn't too hard, given her continued scarily prolific output), but it's so comfortable that I can almost imagine that she poured it out onto the virtual page just as quickly as I read it. It's an emphatic and very well-crafted statement that the series isn't done and, in fact, hasn't even hit its stride yet. There are many doors opened here to possible futures, not only from the perspective of another eight book story arc (is that going to be Evening vs. the Luidaeg or the Seelie Court vs. the Unseelie Court or...?) but also from a geographical perspective; heck, we even get a map of the Westlands here, for the first time, from the Kingdom of Warm Skies all the way down to the Kingdom of Copper, where I live.
There's chaos, complex political chaos. There are murders, attempted murders, elf-shot in abundance. There are characters we know and love and characters we know and hate, along with an ensemble cast of new examples of both. We have Toby's clever use of the magical tools around her, not least Karen's oneiromancy. There are new ways of damaging Toby to the degree that we wonder if her Dóchas Sidhe blood can bring her back. There are a whole slew of levels, especially with regard to elf-shot and what it means to so many different people. There's so much here that it's almost a greatest-hits package worked into a worthy new framework, but McGuire never rests on her laurels.
Even if this doesn't contain the best writing in the series (those last hundred pages of 'One Salt Sea' are going to be really hard to beat), it's surely the best book thus far. It's also the most quintessential, the most ambitious and the most satisfying Toby Daye novel and an emphatic shot in the arm for Luidaeg fans everywhere. The bonus novella in my paperback edition, 'Dreams and Slumbers', which is told from the perspective of Queen Arden Windermere, is a neat addition too.
The only catch to getting this far into the series is that I only have one more book left to go, 'The Brightest Fell', which I'll devour next month. That's currently the eleventh and most recent in the series and we won't see book twelve, 'Night and Silence', until September. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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