Doctrine of Labyrinths: Book II
If you’re going to entrust your life and well-being to the care of another human being, would Felix Harrowgate really be your first choice?
Well, there’s no accounting for taste. Picking up from the end of Mélusine, we rejoin Mildmay and Felix in the Gardens of Nephele. Felix has been healed of his madness and Mildmay has been freed of his own death-curse, but is stuck with the pain of his lamed and twisted leg. Although Felix seems happy enough, studying dream-magic, working his way through the library, and winning admirers left, right and centre, Mildmay feels increasingly isolated and out of place. He’s perfectly aware that these elevated philosophers only tolerate him because he happens to be the half-brother of the new toast of the town. For once, Felix rises above his own selfishness just long enough to see Mildmay’s unhappiness; and he decides it’s time for them to go home.
Of course, this being Felix, the return to Mélusine is as much for his own benefit as Mildmay’s. Felix has realised that, with his power restored, he has the ability to mend the Virtu and thwart Malkar’s plans to weaken the Mirador. What better way for Felix to waltz back into the good books of the court? As far as Mildmay is concerned, simply getting out of the Gardens is a start. Returning to Mélusine itself, if they ever get that far, would actually be something of an issue for him. His life in the Lower City is effectively over: there’s a reason no one has ever heard of a lame cat-burglar. His beloved Ginevra is dead; and his future, such as it is, lies in the hands of his charismatic but fickle brother.
For now, Mildmay just focuses on getting back to the mainland, but they’ve scarcely boarded their ship before he realises with a jolt that he’s once again going to be sidelined. Felix charms his way into the company of their elegant fellow passengers – among them the Gauthy family, and the enigmatic young man Phaëthon (who turns out to be a no-less enigmatic girl named Arakhne, travelling in disguise). Mildmay, however, finds that the only person who seems to want his company is the over-imaginative young Florian Gauthy, with his taste for wild stories of Lower City life. And then, when the travellers reach the Gauthys’ home town, Florian goes missing; and Felix and Mildmay find themselves descending into yet another labyrinth in the hope of finding him.
As I said of the last book, the two main characters and their relationship continue to be the driving force of this series. The plot is fast-paced and engaging, and thankfully less grim than in the first novel, with some marvellously eerie moments, such as the scene where Felix discovers the way to lay to rest the wandering ghosts in the Mirador. But the most gripping aspect of the story, for me, is the way our two narrators relate to one another, and that starts to get very… interesting here. In fact the whole series seems to be an exploration of different forms of love, whether that’s friendship, fraternal love, admiration, desire and so forth, and the various ways that these can intertwine. As I hinted in the last book, Felix has what can only be described as thoroughly inappropriate feelings and, in inadvertently revealing these, he provides one of the dramatic turning points of the book. However, I rather liked the fact that Felix was grown-up enough to accept that nothing more was on the cards (for now?), and that Mildmay could face up to the unexpected, and see that the bigger picture was more important.
The latter is actually one of the key themes of this book: Mildmay is constantly prepared to sacrifice his own welfare for the greater good, which he invariably (in an endearingly misguided fashion) associates with helping Felix achieve his aim with the Virtu. Unfortunately Felix isn’t the noble hero his half-brother loyally believes him to be, deep down. For all his professions of love, he doesn’t even appreciate the degree of danger he’s putting Mildmay into, until it’s too late. After all, their return to the Mirador doesn’t just bring Mildmay’s life into danger from the Curia, but also accidentally places him directly in Malkar’s path.
Delving deeper into the theory of labyrinths and magic and the unquiet dead, this was a satisfying sequel and, once again, formidably readable. In fact I think I got through the entire book in the course of the journey from Gatwick Airport to Florence. As soon as I got back to London I ordered the final two books in the series and I’m now waiting very impatiently for them to arrive so that I can read more. As before, it’s not so much what happens next that matters to me, so much as being able to read more of Mildmay’s narration. If anything, I found his voice even more infectious this time round. It’s probably because I read the two books in one extended sitting, but by the end of it I was actually thinking in Mildmay’s voice and found it terrifically hard to shake off.
And isn’t that a marvellous cover? Young man perched in dramatic pose on roof. Check. Blade in hand. Check. Implausibly white billowing shirt. Check. Swashbuckling perfection.
Last in this series: Mélusine
Next in this series: The Mirador