Doctrine of Labyrinths: Book IV
With scarcely a break for breath, it was onto the final volume in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series. After the rather indecisive feel of the third book, I was glad to find that Corambis knew exactly what it was trying to do from the first page, and I was glad to be back out on the road, with Felix and Mildmay contra mundum once again.
Exiled from the Mirador after his impassioned destruction of Isaac Garamond’s sanity, Felix has been ordered north to the country of Corambis, which is far further than either he or Mildmay have ever dreamed of going. As they pass literally off the map and enter countries where Mélusine and her wizards are nothing more than the stuff of purple romance novels, they find themselves once again having to rely on one another as they come into contact with bewildering technology, and find that, once again, labyrinths are lurking everywhere.
As the series continues, I’ve increasingly felt that the plot has become little more than a support for the characters, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I am quite happy to watch Felix and Mildmay struggling to get along with one another. What I mean is that they certainly stumble into plots and war zones and intrigue of various kinds, but there isn’t an overarching narrative that provides a neat and tidy end. That’s obviously a conscious decision on the author’s part and, as well as briskly subverting what you expect from a fantasy series, it really does give the impression that we’re only looking in at part of these characters’ lives: that, no matter how much we might know of what’s happened to date, there’s going to be more beyond the scope of the novels that we will never know. I can’t believe that the resolution of the series can possibly satisfy Felix for long, but who am I to judge?
Also, please note that I say the ‘plot’ is only a support, rather than the ‘world-building’, which is a much richer and more elaborate thing. Throughout the whole series there have been allusions to history and stories and myths beyond the scope of the immediate plot we’re following, as well as a sense of a much broader geography, and I am confident that if Monette wished she could expand very easily into other regions of her intricately-designed world.
Generally, I felt much more comfortable with this book than I did with the last one. I suspect part of that is because we were back travelling with Felix and Mildmay and, for me, those sections of the series have been much more rewarding than the parts when they’re staying in one place, mainly because we get more interaction between them, and Mildmay gets to do more than just follow Felix around and be looked down on. It’s also due to the style chosen for the third narratorial voice in this volume: we’ve lost Mehitabel, which I can’t say I regret enormously, and gained a character whom I found much more interesting (but then I’ve always had a soft spot for noble suffering).
Most significantly, however, the style of these chapters was very close to the faux-archaic style of The Goblin Emperor. It’s as if Kay’s voice is an inadvertent dry run for that of Maia. The world which we see in this fourth book is also much closer than that of The Goblin Emperor. Having mentally placed the action in the late 18th century, I was completely wrong-footed when Felix and Mildmay encounter not only a steam train but also a fantasy version of the London Underground, which naturally caused me no end of amusement. It’s a playful upending of the usual fantasy tropes, which of course only develops further in the zeppelins and pneumatic message tubes of The Goblin Emperor.
And, as for Mildmay and Felix themselves, they once again find themselves tested to their limits by the frustration of loving one another but sometimes not liking each other all that much (as an only child, I understand this to be fairly typical of siblings). Certainly they need one another, because no one else in the world has ever cared for either of them without having ulterior motives; but, on the other hand, they know only too well how to rub each other up the wrong way. However, for once, Felix is forced to take responsibility for supporting them in Corambis, as Mildmay spends the first part of the book racked with fever. Naturally the way Felix chooses to go about this isn’t the way anyone else would adopt, but that in itself testifies to the levels of emotional scarring beneath his flamboyant exterior. For his part, Mildmay forces himself past his comfort zone in another sense, as he decides to start learning to read and even contemplates actually getting an education. As ever, they both feel invariably like ‘themselves’, although I do slightly miss the more lively, vivacious Mildmay from earlier in the series.
Incidentally, I feel compelled to point out that this series isn’t for the squeamish. I’m no prude but it’s fairly explicit throughout and, especially in books one and four, there are some strong sadomasochistic elements. The latter made me feel rather uncomfortable: I can understand that they make sense in the wider context of the character in question, but nevertheless there were points which went slightly beyond what I was looking for. For other people that won’t be a problem, but at the same time I feel duty-bound to point out that the series won’t be for everyone.
That said, I’ve been completely gripped by these books over the last couple of weeks and by their blunt, completely compelling use of characterisation. The relationship between the two protagonists is finely judged and, though I’ve said this several times already, I’ve never come across a narrative voice quite as distinctive, original and downright infectious as that of Mildmay. I said at the beginning that I’d kept reading after the first book almost entirely because of him: it was a gamble that paid off. Things didn’t quite pan out as I’d expected, and perhaps the series does trail off rather than end with a bang, but again I suspect that is a conscious choice to avoid the cliches of fantasy novels.
After all, this hasn’t been a story about the defeat of a Dark Lord (thank goodness) or the destruction / discovery of magical artefacts: it’s a more human tale about two people struggling to overcome their inner demons and to find redemption in one another’s company. From that point of view, the series ends very appropriately: with a beautiful, subtle and curiously liberating note of hope.
Last in this series: The Mirador