Mélusine: Sarah Monette

★★★ ½

Doctrine of Labyrinths: Book I

Having enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, I thought it would be fun to read some other books by the same author, and that meant going back to her popular Doctrine of Labyrinths series. Needless to say, I hadn’t read much of the first book, Mélusine, before realising that this was a very different kind of novel. So much for heart-warming cosiness! Something happens in the early chapters of Mélusine which very nearly made me decide not to carry on – those who’ve read the novel will know what I’m talking about. While I don’t mind reading about violence in battle situations, torture and sexual violation is another matter entirely. But I decided to give it a chance and ploughed on (things settle down a bit after that early, shocking scene); and, to my surprise, I was completely and utterly gripped. I still can’t decide whether or not I actually liked the book as a whole, but that’s immaterial in view of the fact that I was hooked.

The story is set in the city of Mélusine, in a world where the calendar is based on the French revolutionary system and the names are a blend of French, Greek and English influences. The town itself is a seething jumble of streets inhabited by hired muscle, vagrants and bands of feral child-thieves, who owe allegiance to no one but their ‘Keeper’. Above the different districts and territories rises the Mirador, the upper city, a labyrinthine complex of passages, halls and towers where the court resides. You would imagine that the governor, Stephen Teverius, is at the heart of the Mirador; but this isn’t quite true. In fact the Mirador centres on a blue sphere of pulsing energy, called the Virtu, which regulates and controls the various magical forces in the realm. Among Stephen’s courtiers are his wizards – the Curia – who are devoted to both serving and preserving the Virtu and preventing darker powers from seeping in. This is a world, after all, where magic can be very dark indeed. Ghouls and necromancers haunt the cemeteries in the Lower City, and renegade wizards circle the Mirador’s defences like wolves.

This is where Felix Harrowgate comes in. Saying that Felix has issues is like saying that the Marquis de Sade was occasionally intemperate. He’s one of the most powerful wizards in the Curia: a brilliant, handsome and obnoxiously arrogant redhead, making enemies at the same rate he scythes his way through the hearts of the Mirador’s nobles. But Felix has a secret. His past is a pretence, cobbled together to hide his grim beginnings as a child prostitute in the slums of Mélusine. ‘Rescued’ by a man who can see Felix’s magical talent, he’s been groomed to act and think as a nobleman, given a plausible back-story, and manoeuvred into the Curia. And now the time has come to repay the favour.

Confronted by his former master and lover, Felix is forced into service as the conduit for a spell of unprecedented power which aims to dismantle the very foundations of the Mirador’s power. It works. With the Virtu shattered, the Mirador’s protective influence crumbles and all manner of dark magic begins to rise. Felix’s signature on the spell is plain, but he is unable to defend himself. Compelled to silence, he plummets into a terrifying madness, where emotions manifest themselves as colours and those around him bear the shape-shifting heads of animals. Tormented and broken, he’s barely conscious of being stripped of his honours and cast into the city’s madhouse, where even more horrors await. The only thing Felix knows is that he has to get out: he’s seen some gardens in a dream, where he knows he can be healed. The only problem is how to get there.

And then there’s Mildmay, and this is where the book leaps into gloriously exuberant life. A cat-burglar and hired blade, who is something of a legend despite his youth, Mildmay is a familiar sight in the Lower City in Mélusine – not least because of the striking scar across his face. He has freed himself from his Keeper, struck out on his own and is doing rather well for himself; but things are about to take a very unexpected turn. First, a young woman hires him to help her retrieve some jewellery, which takes him precisely to the one place in Mélusine he doesn’t want to be.

Shortly afterwards, in the process of running for his life, he stumbles across a foreign wizard and his taciturn servant who offer him a commission: find Felix Harrowgate. All Mildmay knows about this man is that he’s just destroyed the Virtu and that he seems to be a key to this foreigner’s own quest. But, when he finally does track Felix down, he is faced with a stupefying revelation (Mildmay, incidentally, is also a natural redhead: I’ve never read a book whose plot hinged so closely on a question of hair dye). And so this world-weary thief finds himself saddled with a task that seems more impossible than any he’s faced so far: somehow getting an insane, emotionally scarred wizard halfway across the world on the off-chance that the gardens he keeps seeing in his dreams might be real.

The real key to the book is the characterisation. Felix and Mildmay take alternating chapters for their narration, so you get to know both of them extremely well and, through Felix’s chapters, Monette conveys a convincingly visceral kind of madness. While the two men are very different from each other, they’ve both suffered abuse at the hands of those who should have protected them and you really get a sense of the masks they wear to face the world, to shield their lonely, damaged, affection-starved inner selves. The complementary first-person narrations are a stroke of genius, because you get to see these two people struggling to make sense of each other, usually getting the wrong end of the stick, but floundering on because they simply don’t have anyone else.

Despite being younger, Mildmay is much more mature. He takes on Felix with the fraternal bluffness of someone raised in the tightly-knit thief community, which masks a deep loyalty and commitment rarely found in the generic ‘rogue’ character type. On occasion Mildmay does get exasperated with Felix, but this is balanced out by a large dose of hero-worship. He forces himself through a series of dangerous endeavours in an effort to somehow prove himself worthy of this captivating person (and be properly noticed by him). The irony, obviously, is that Mildmay is easily worth ten of Felix. In a crisis, Mildmay would probably have a rope or a piece of wire to cleverly get you out of trouble, whereas Felix would just have hysterics and hide in the corner. Anyway. For his part, even through the fog of madness, Felix develops a desperate dependence on Mildmay but his feelings (unsurprisingly, considering Felix) are rather more… complicated.

Having read some other reviews after I’d finished Mélusine, I realised that my own feelings about the book are shared by many, many other readers out there. Whenever Felix wasn’t completely insane I wanted to slap him for his precious self-importance. I also felt uneasy that the scene near the beginning seemed designed to force me to pity him, even though I couldn’t see anything remotely sympathetic about this character. By the end of this book he seemed to be displaying faint traces of humanity, but I decided not to get my hopes up too much. By contrast, I adored Mildmay from approximately the second line written in his narrative voice, which is one of the most deliciously distinctive that I’ve ever come across. Peppered with slang and cant and a catchphrase that gets stuck in your head (and would be entirely inappropriate to say out loud), it shows up the differences in the way that the commons and the elite speak, and adds to the already impressive level of world-building. By the middle of the book I wasn’t even watching the plot so much as revelling in the way that Mildmay tells his side of the story; and by the final pages I had decided that I had to read the rest of the series if only to spend more time with him as a character.

I have to conclude with a nod to the striking cover art for this series. I believe the artist is Judy York (please correct me if I’m wrong) and she has created four very different but beautiful designs. I’d seen this cover several times over the years and was intrigued by it; and now, having read the book, I can only assume that Felix would be very smug about looking so brooding and mysterious. Mind you, I have to admit that the cover for the next book is even more wonderful, because it ticks all my swashbuckling boxes with gusto (and features Mildmay, obviously).

So there we go. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this book at all and, completely despite myself, I’ve been captivated by it. Since I read it while travelling, I went straight on to the sequel, The Virtu, because I really couldn’t help myself. That says a lot about the quality of the writing, even if the content is sometimes a bit disturbing. I just hope things don’t get too dark as we carry on.

Buy the book

Next in this series: The Virtu

8 thoughts on “Mélusine: Sarah Monette

  1. Heloise says:

    Splendid review, even though it is of course a pity that you didn't like it quite as much as I did. 😉 Mélusine was the first book by Sarah Monette that I read and I fell in love with it straight away, The Doctrine of Labyrinths even became (and stayed) one of my all-time favourite Fantasy series. I liked it for all the reasons you point out, and didn't have your issues with Felix – not that I'd exactly liked him but I thought he was fascinating to read about, and think it's marvellous how Sarah Monette manages to present us with two so very distinct characters and make both of them utterly believable and give each of them their own, unique voice. I don't think Monette actually intended for anyone to like Felix (much like I still doubt Dorothy Dunnett intended anyone to like Lymond in the first few volumes of that series [I'll grant you that Felix is considerably more insufferable, though]), and the things that happen to him in my opinion are not meant to make us sympathise with him (which they obviously fail to do) but to the contrary to show that even with that much claim to our pity, he still manages to remain thoroughly unlikeable.

    Also, just to mention it, I think there's also a lot of wonderful worldbuilding going on in this series. It all happens untobtrusively in the background so you barely notice it during your first reading, but it's definitely there, and Monette does spring a few surprises on the reader in that regard, particularly in the fourth volume.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    For me I think these books are growing better and better the more I think about them. That's one of the problems with my system of writing a review immediately I finish a book. It means that I don't lose any of the gut reaction to it, but at the same time it means that my opinions quite often continuing maturing over the next few days. As you know, having now read the first two books and having had three days in which I can do nothing but think about them, there are several themes which I'm beginning to find more and more interesting. As for my issues with Felix, I think we all know by now that I occasionally have very strong personal reactions to certain characters, either for good or for bad; and in any case I think that I appreciate him more now that I've read two books and got into his character a bit more. (As for Lymond, I think Dunnett may have intended us to fall for him pretty much right from the beginning, despite not being able to like him at first.) 😀

    Since I have now ordered every book in this series in hardback, and with a bit of luck they'll be waiting for me when I get into the office tomorrow, I will definitely be rereading – and I have no doubt that I will enjoy them even more on a second go. But first I NEED to find out what happens next. 🙂

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