Indexing, by Seanan McGuire

>> Tuesday, December 09, 2014

TITLE: Indexing
AUTHOR: Seanan McGuire

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 404
PUBLISHER: 47North

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Urban Fantasy
SERIES: None that I know of!

“Never underestimate the power of a good story.”

Good advice…especially when a story can kill you.

For most people, the story of their lives is just that: the accumulation of time, encounters, and actions into a cohesive whole. But for an unfortunate few, that day-to-day existence is affected—perhaps infected is a better word—by memetic incursion: where fairy tale narratives become reality, often with disastrous results.

That's where the ATI Management Bureau steps in, an organization tasked with protecting the world from fairy tales, even while most of their agents are struggling to keep their own fantastic archetypes from taking over their lives. When you're dealing with storybook narratives in the real world, it doesn't matter if you're Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Wicked Queen: no one gets a happily ever after.

Indexing is New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy where everything you thought you knew about fairy tales gets turned on its head.

Hearing about the premise of this book was enough for me to buy it. It's set in a version of our world where an unseen force, the "narrative" keeps trying to reenact fairy tales in real people's lives. This can have really horrific consequences for those involved, so the ATI Management Bureau secretly works to deactivate situations where it looks like the narrative has taken over.

Our narrator, Henrietta 'Henry' Marchen, is a Snow White who was brought up by Bureau agents after her mother's death (her mother was a Sleeping Beauty). Through constant vigilance she has managed to keep her narrative from really manifesting (the bluebirds splatting against her windows trying to get close to her and the wildflowers growing on her carpet every morning don't really count), and now she's a team leader at the Bureau herself.

Indexing was originally a serial, with episodes coming out every two weeks, and at first, I felt it showed. The first two or three episodes each cover a case Henry and her team are called out to handle. The first case, for instance, is a Sleeping Beauty who manifests as a woman infected by an airborn virus. As soon as she gets to the hospital and collapses, the virus spreads through the air conditioning vents and puts everyone around her to sleep. So I thought that was going to be what the book was like... stand-alone mini cases. It felt a bit disjointed and episodic (with a fair bit of repetition, to remind readers of details they might have forgot in the previous fortnight), but the cases were clever enough that I would have happily read on.

However, after McGuire establishes her world a bit, an overall plot starts to emerge. Something is going wrong with the narrative, with cases suddenly coming fast and furious, and some of them being a bit wonky. Henry and her team begin to suspect someone might be behind that, and before long they're in an all out fight to save the world as they know it.

This was really great fun. The cases the team encounter were really interesting and the use of fairy tales was great. I loved how McGuire turned well known fairy tales on their heads, often following the logic implicit in them and pointing out the inevitable consequences if they happened in the real world. I also loved the clever ways Henry and her team found to turn things around. They were always unexpected, and yet they made perfect sense. Finally, I enjoyed how this all developed an idea about the role and importance of storytelling in the world. There were great little details, like the danger of urban myths achieving enough status that the narrative would start incorporating them into its stock of stories.

I also liked the characters McGuire created for Henry's team and how they grow and develop throughout the book, both individually and as a team. Sloane was probably my favourite. She didn't start that way. I hate people who are rude and mean for no reason, but the thing is, Sloan has a reason. She's an evil stepsister, so she has major anger management issues. The episode which showed us exactly how it feels to be inside her was really touching, but in a way that didn't defang her.

There's even a bit of romance. There's the team archivist (who specialises in identifying how a particular situation fits in in the canon, and what routes are open to it, at least, based on past experience), who might just have a thing for Henry. And even better, there's a transgender character who's dealt with sensitively and who gets his own HEA.

It wasn't a perfect book, though. Some of the writing didn't completely work for me. I think it might have something to do with this being urban fantasy, which too often means authors feel the need to create 'snarky' characters. McGuire doesn't quite succeed, especially at the beginning. Some of the snarky reactions felt off. Here's Henry thinking about transporting a victim's cat back to the Bureau:

"The idea of sharing a car with her overly amorous cat, which was now rolling on its back and trying to entice me to rub its belly, made me feel faintly ill."

'Faintly ill', really? She's not allergic to cats or disgusted by them, just tired of always having animals adore her (e.g. those bluebirds!) because of her Snow White nature. 'Faintly ill' feels wrong. There were loads of little details like this. It messes with making the characters feel like real people. I think this worked best when the characters were being realistic emotionally when dealing with really fantastical stuff, and these off reactions messed with the emotional believability.

Also (and sorry, this won't make much sense if you haven't read the book), the scenes where Henry is in the whiteout world were a bit too much for me. I didn't quite get them or their significance in the book. I think the story would have worked much better without this element.

Still, this was really enjoyable.

MY GRADE: A B.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This was narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal, which surprised me, as I had no idea she did narration in addition to writing. It wasn't great; tolerable, but just barely. In keeping with the whole snarky thing of urban fantasy, she kept doing 'uptalk' in her narration, which I can take only in very small doses. I think for the next one (if there is one), I'll read the ebook.

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