Genre fiction is the red-haired love child between modern-day and 1940’s pulp fiction. You probably vaguely know what pulp fiction means if you’ve seen the Quentin Tarantino movie by the same name. Actually sensational or fantastical fiction make better names, but at heart they’re all one and the same: “Fast-paced, plot-oriented storytelling of a linear nature with clearly defined, larger than life protagonists and antagonists.” Sounds like your favorite paperback series, doesn’t it?
You might already know the difference between pulp, genre, and popular fiction. (There isn’t much difference actually.) Never-the-less I do have a point.
No matter what kind of fiction tag you prefer (I like genre fiction the best personally) this kind of plot-oriented story has a handful of very specific elements. These include: world, protagonist, premise, threat, romance, and pace. When these elements meld together you get writing magic and don’t just read the book, so much as consume the story.
The great thing about genre fiction is when the right protagonist comes along they have lots of adventures for their writer to explore. So even if one of these stories has a flaw there is always the next book to seek out and enjoy. Seanan McGuire’s October Daye is such a protagonist and is already deep into her series. Let’s examine those plot-oriented elements that make a fae, fae world worth exploring over and over again.
Many genre fiction stories include worlds that aren’t really real, at least not in reality. Either way building a location to journey through is essential for the plot to feel like it could be reality.
I enjoy exploring the world of faerie through Toby. Because of her unique point of view as a changeling we can relate to her world in ways that might not work with a full blood. Of course nothing is as it seems…but at the same time it is. I like how the real world is shadowed by faerie. McGuire uses what we know from folklore and fairy tales to re-inform us about our environment and what is going on beneath the surface of our everyday life.
Typically, in each book, we get to see an aspect of the physical world we haven’t see before. In A Local Habitation we got to explore Tamed Lightening, a neighboring fiefdom. In An Artificial Night we plunged into Blind Michael’s realm. In Late Eclipses we glimpse the world in which Toby grew up, both the human and faerie side.
(Spoilers ahead for Late Eclipses:) I found this glimpse of her mother and father’s contribution to their daughter’s self a highly personal view of Toby’s world that heightened the stakes of the book as a whole. And of course, it’s really enjoyable to visit actual locations in the world we haven’t seen before through the plot. For example, the depths of the Queen of the Mists’ knowe, even if Toby had to suffer iron poisoning to show us. And getting to glimpse the Cat’s underground world made up for some of his cats dying.
While genre fiction is all about plot, we are experiencing that plot and viewing that world through the eyes of a specific character. So whoever our protagonist is, they need to inspire us to follow anywhere.
In Rosemary and Rue we learn right away Toby spent many years as a fish. This helps us understand that having failed in her duty to the Duke, she doesn’t want to fail again. To compound her motivation her daughter has been lost to her since she disappeared. Just because she’s suddenly returned doesn’t fix the years she’s been gone for her human family. Toby doesn’t want her experiences to be repeated in anyone else’s life. This is a good and true reason to risk herself.
In Late Eclipses, we get to see Toby’s background might not be what she or we were led to believe. Amandine makes an appearance, one we’ve been waiting for with bated breath. You find much of her human father and his influence in her. This is pretty big for any person, real or imagined. Reinventing her background, her most basic of history shakes up Toby but also the reader in a very real way.
On the other hand, I didn’t fancy all her talk of being a hero suddenly thrust in Late Eclipses. I feel like McGuire was talking to her audience. A protagonist should be written as they are, not pandered and changed to fit what the reader desires. People do grow and change though. It’s a subtle process and I think Toby typically shows this well.
A series of events that quickly thrusts the reader into the plot draws us into genre fiction. Capturing our interest is the point so being able to relate to the events surrounding the protagonist is key.
Typically Toby is interrupted from her mundane (considering she resides on the edge of faerie) life to hare off after some mystery she becomes responsible for solving even if it means her life. This makes each story relatable (wouldn’t we want some mystery to enliven our boring lives?) and engaging (now we don’t have to take all the consequences that come with danger – we can just read about it!) in general.
McGuire really is a master at drawing you in and Late Eclipses didn’t stray from the pattern. This time she’s being framed and even her nearest and dearest don’t believe her. Now that we’ve hung out with Toby for several books threatening those she cares for, threatens us. We don’t want to lose any of her loved ones any more than she does because we know it’ll hit us equally as hard. Even though Toby kept returning to Shadowed Hills over and over knowing she’d be caught I could keep reading. It was a clumsy way to give the Queen a way to throw Toby in prison but it worked because of the strong premise.
In Rosemary and Rue we learn Toby spent many years as a fish, until one day the spell is broken. In A Local Habitation we learn someone or something is killing fae and taking their souls with them. In An Artificial Night Toby goes up against her biggest fae legend yet, Blind Michael, stealer of children. Even if aspects of her plot or story don’t work or fail on some level, the premise is solid, with this framework in place the reader’s suspension of disbelief remains intact.
Threat works with premise to offer opportunities for the protagonist to succeed or to fail. Genre fiction loves to up the ante for the reader in a continuous cycle of harm, pain, and misery.
McGuire isn’t shy about threatening Toby’s world and the people she loves or feels responsible about. In Late Eclipses, it’s May, Luna, Lily and even Tybalt’s sanity. If Toby dies then her fetch, May will be gone as well. If Luna does not recover then the Duke will not ever be the same again…and not for the good. Even Tybalt is put to the test when some of his subjects fall ill due to his connection to his changeling friend.
Toby is truly blessed to be surrounded with such wonderful friends and allies. And we are equally blessed that no one is necessarily “safe” other than Toby (of course). While McGuire isn’t terribly creative with how she threatens Toby, we know that she would be truly devastated to lose one of her closest friends. So while I’d like to see outcomes other than death, I can see why this is her go to threat.
There are other states worse than death though. In the previous book, An Artificial Night, she touches on this with Toby risking eternity being a part of Blind Michael’s court in order to save the kids. I’d really enjoy seeing more of that kind of risk in regards to her and her friends. Also even our closest friends have limits, boundaries that if we cross causes distance to grow between them. It would be great to see McGuire explore this at some point with Toby, it’s one of her greatest fears. Sometimes it’s more tragic for a friend to live than to die.
Genre fiction is smart, it knows readers love to fall in love, be in love and risk our love. We all seek that special someone and shouldn’t the same be the case for our favorite protagonists?
In Rosemary and Rue we only really see Conner as a possible love interest and a lost love interest at that. We are told she has a child with a human man, but that’s over. And we are introduced to Tybalt but anything else has only the barest hint. In A Local Habitation both fae men are in the story but since she is out-of-town so to speak there is only minor progress (which is really smart!). In An Artificial Night Toby threatens being with anyone by offering herself to Blind Michael on behalf of all the others.
So as love triangles go McGuire handles Toby’s love relationships very well with balance and great pacing over each book. She has a broken relationship with the human father of her estranged child. Conner is the one that got away and she feels great pity for him since he is married to Raysel, her liege’s crazy daughter. Of course, every reader wants Toby with Tybalt but it’s a tricky situation with him as he’s King of the Cats.
In Late Eclipses, I enjoyed Tybalt’s story arc. Her relationship with Tybalt has advanced and she’s glimpsing possibilities with him she’s not even thought of before. He’s come forward as a staunch ally, now for everyone to see, not just behind the scenes. As for Conner, I understood why she added his intersection. His availability seems to be making itself open and it makes sense Toby wants to explore that relationship. Oh what will she do, will she chose the risky, passionate, new lover or the safe, comfortable, known lover?
A reader’s life is set at a slower pace and we love that genre fiction is speedy. These stories don’t stop and smell the roses: it’s threaten, learn, advance, grow, change, develop. Everything keeps trotting forward.
McGuire keeps Toby moving, moving, moving. Any of her books feels very action oriented. You know Toby is motivated and will keep exploring every avenue until there is a break in the case. I enjoy this, again even when aspects of plot fail the pace keeps the story moving forward and you quickly get to an aspect that does work.
In Late Eclipses, there are many plot points not maintained as well as they could have been. The pace helped to slip right over these spots and make the elements work as a whole even though they probably shouldn’t have. Since Toby herself sets this heightened pace to the story we know she will keep picking at the mystery until she gets results.
One Salt Sea, McGuire’s next and best written book, uses pacing to its plot advantage. We have the Luidaeg calling in all the markers Toby owes her. She’s been collecting these markers since the first book so it’s great we finally get to see her call them in and to advert a war! Finally learning more about the Luidaeg’s history doesn’t hurt matters either. McGuire doesn’t try to cram too much plot into one book but paces it out over her whole series. This is using pacing at it’s best.
Sure McGuire’s plot isn’t flawless but she uses the strengths of genre fiction to smooth over those weak areas. Through the world, protagonist, premise, threat, romance, and pace we see that October Daye’s world is a fae, fae place we all want to visit whenever a new installment hits the shelves. Next time you read a paperback ponder why you’re a fan of genre fiction.