Indexing Series Book 1, 47North (Originally by Kindle Serial), 2013, 404 pgs.
You may know her better as Snow White, but her name’s Henry actually. And she really must insist on Henry, too; she hasn’t spent years avoiding apples and fighting the urge to be a shrinking violet just to let her Aarne-Thompson designation define her, even if she can’t shake the unfortunate coloration. She’s only one of many, anyway. There are thousands of possible Snow Whites out there, ready to wake up one day and start talking to the birds and collecting groups of short men. There are thousands of every possible fairytale character. Because underlying our reality, the one where people get to make choices about who they’re going to be and what they’re going to do, is The Narrative. You probably know it, or have at least heard its stories. They pop up in almost every culture across the globe. And fighting it is what Henry and her team do for a living. She and the others at the ATI Management Bureau are who they call in to save lives when a Sleeping Beauty activates and sends everyone in an office building downtown into a coma or to when a newly awakened Cinderella decides to ditch her loving fiance for a prince she barely knows. So, Henry please, and some respect. Even if you’re a completely normal human, you might need her some day.
Have we ever talked about how much I love stories about stories?
As much as I do appreciate individuality in a piece, and as much as I’ll complain about certain tropes, nothing will get me into a work quicker than the idea that the writer knows and loves storytelling as an art form. It might show up in something as simple as having the lead be a reader who makes references to other pieces, or it might come from something as complex as the sort of interwoven myths and history you get from a high fantasy piece. It might even just be in the self-aware use of a predictable element.
But books and stories have had a huge impact on my life, and I like when an author clearly has that background too. That’s part of the reason I like mixed genres, and part of the reason I like retellings when they’re done skillfully and cleverly.
What I’m saying here is that I’d been meaning to read some Seanan McGuire for a while now, and I’m glad this book was my first, because it has both of those things. This is a book entirely about stories, and the way we create them, and the way they take over, and the way we try to control them.
I have to say, though, this would have been a fun book even if it wasn’t as metatextual as it is. I may read more fantasy than anything anymore, but I grew up on Agatha Christie and old Law and Order reruns, and this captures the spirit of those episodic procedurals pretty well.
Though I guess that fits in with the “story about stories” theme, too. We have all of the standard stock characters here, from Henry, who’s a hard-nosed detective even while she’s Snow White, to Sloane, the eccentric goth girl/evil stepsister, to Jeff, one of the shoemaker’s elves, whose need for detail work makes him the go-to computer expert, rounded out by Demi the guileless rookie who gets dragged into the crazy because the team needed a Pied Piper type to end a story takeover without deaths. Oh, and Andy, who’s sort of the brawn, but is mostly the straight man, as he’s perfectly normal and only has a secondary connection to the fairytale side of things.
If it weren’t for their fairytale alter egos they could almost be an episode of NCIS.
And the plot follows along those lines, as it’s mostly a series of cases that the team takes on as they attempt to prevent “memetic incursions,” or fairy tales taking over and messing up people’s’ normal lives, from running wild in their city.
The episodic nature allows for a lot of flexibility, which gives McGuire the ability to look at a lot of different types of cases as the book goes on. It’s not exactly the most fast-paced plot structure or the one with the best build, but it does allow the novel to be light and fun, in the way a send-up procedural should.
Even if what problems the book does have also seem to stem from this structure. The long drag of a slow case between two incredibly tense ones, or the piece’s tendency to be very repetitive are both probably lingering elements from its original, serial publication. I can’t be too hard on either, considering they were probably necessary for the way it was originally released, but they are off-putting when reading the story in one sitting.
Basically, though, if you have any fondness for cheesy cop shows, there’s a good chance you’ll like this.
But the real fun for me comes from the way the fairy tales are reinterpreted and used. I’m the sort of folklore geek who knew the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index existed before this novel, so all of the little meta touches and nods to lesser known fairy tales of course made me incredibly happy. If you’re also the sort of person who’d get a kick out of our characters trying to classify a Sleeping Beauty story down by variation, this is definitely for you.
I think, though, if you have any idea of the way a story can shift and warp in each retelling, you’ll get the general idea. In the book’s world, there are thousands of potential Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, all ready to awaken in the narrative and disrupt the normal world, with its ability to change, by forcing it to conform to the story.
Which is the other wonderful, metatextual thing about the book’s setup: its effect on the character.
There’s a quote in one of the Discworld books, Witches Abroad, I think, where one of the leads rails against the idea of “feeding people to stories,” of letting the role you think someone is supposed to play override any of their actual goals and desires, override any of the things they choose to do. It’s an idea that’s always stuck with me, and one that I think has relation to a lot of real world issues.
It’s part of the reason we talk so much about representation. How are you supposed to know you can become an astrophysicist when everything is telling you the role you’re “supposed” to play is nanny? How are you supposed to accomplish something when every force, social, economic, and media is telling you that people like you don’t do that? We do, sometimes, have a tendency to “feed people to stories.”
This is a novel almost entirely about that idea, down to its very bones. Most of the cases break down in roughly the same way: a “memetic incursion” will pop up, drag everyone in its immediate vicinity into whatever story it is and give them a proscribed role, and then our heroes, all of whom have been badly affected by the overall narrative, will have to go in to fight it. And the heroes are the ones who fight it, because whether the narrative popping up is dangerous to lives or just to personal autonomy, letting it go just allows it to gain strength.
You can read a lot of different things into that. The first and most obvious, like I said, is as a representation of the societal forces that have a hand in dictating where our lives go, but there are definitely others. Sloane’s sudden urges to kill her teammates, which horrify the part of her that is her own person, can be read as a metaphor for intrusive thoughts, for one.
Or you could take it straight back to storytelling: the ways in which stories become entrenched, until they’re seen as just how narrative works, and how hard it can be to do something new when that happens. There’s a reading here that relates as much to fiction and authorship as much as one that relates to real life.
What I’m saying, though, is that this book does what all the best fantasy does, and that’s to use its fantastical elements as layered commentary, whether it’s to give us some road map for real world issues or to try to pick out the nature of narrative itself.
And while this is far from a perfect book, I’ll very happily take that.