Mélusine

by Sarah Monette

Cover image

Series: Doctrine of Labyrinths #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: August 2005
Printing: July 2006
ISBN: 0-441-01417-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 477

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Felix Harrowgate is one of the elite of the city of Mélusine. He's dashing, sophisticated, a powerful wizard, a member of the circle of nobles who surrounds the Lord Protector, and the lover of the Lord Protector's brother. He's also hiding a shameful past and a history of manipulation and control by another court wizard who practices dark magics poorly understood in Mélusine. As the story starts, his past catches up with him and brutally uses him as a weapon against the rulers of the city, leaving him crippled and insane.

Mildmay the Fox is a freelance cat burgler who makes an acceptable living in the streets and on the rooves of Mélusine, knows the territory and gangs, and has a past of his own as a kept-thief and assassin. He doesn't have the ambitions of Felix; he just wants to survive and keep away from the law. But slowly he's pulled out of his well-understood, if not safe, world and into Felix's and the problems of the wizards.

Mélusine is unusually told in the first person from two alternating viewpoints, both Felix and Mildmay. At the start, it's a story of two worlds, two aspects of the same city and contrasting styles of confidence and competence. Mildmay is immediately likeable, sounding like a born storyteller, using street grammar and slang without compromising readability and telling his story with an open honesty even when he's doing something stupid. He's part of the underside of the city, a wanted criminal, but his view is cleaner and more comfortable than Felix's from the start. Felix is weak and hurting, tangled in darkness and corruption he has no control over, and his story quickly becomes brutal and devastating. Everything he tries to do buries him deeper and hurts him more. As the story develops and Felix sinks into madness, it becomes a tale of two personalities trying to understand each other across an impossible gap, and of the contrast between a wholly practical view of the world and an entirely symbolic one.

Mildmay is my favorite part of this book, and for the first half or so I cringed away from Felix's parts and eagerly awaited more of Mildmay's story (even when it wasn't going anywhere quickly). He has an appealing sense of honor and fair-play, and a compelling, self-aware way of arguing with himself and telling his own story that makes one naturally root for him. The book catches fire once Mildmay finally meets Felix (which takes half the book) and becomes the one person who's truly on Felix's side and truly trying to see through Felix's madness to find the reality at the root of his reactions. If, like me, you've read a lot of epic fantasy, always liked the streetwise thief or assassin who joins the hero's party, and wished you could hear the story from their perspective rather than the boring coming-of-age kid, you'll appreciate Mildmay.

Felix, on the other hand, is a harrowing portrayal of someone pushed until his mind breaks. This is not a story where the hero is brought just to the brink and is then rescued in the nick of time. Felix is used, tortured, left as scapegoat, and used and abused again in a disturbingly realistic portrayal of someone systematically deprived of allies. His resulting magic-driven schizophrenia is realistic enough to border on horror in places, and despite magic symbolism providing a bit of a handle on it, is not smoothed over or toned down to be less disturbing. The first part of the book shows the reader all too well that no one cares about him, no one believes him, he has no way of effectively communicating what he's perceiving, and none of this is likely to change. It makes the final meeting with Mildmay far more powerful, but it's not pleasant reading.

This human drama is set against a beautifully deep background. Monette both constructs a world full of history, politics, philosophy, and schools of magic and avoids breaking it down into neat categories and classifications like a role-playing manual. This world is complex and realistically messy, the characters have a limited grasp of schools of thought outside of their own education, lines between magical schools are fuzzy and confused, and magic feels poorly understood and fraught with peril. The world feels rich in a way that I rarely see in fantasies, in large part because it's not set up as a series of intellectual dominoes the books will knock over. The characters aren't going to methodically visit every point on the map (there is no map), we won't be systematically introduced to each well-defined school, and the world feels like it has a history that lives on around, before, and after the characters. This sense of murky depth is rare and adds a lot to the book, particularly when a thematic focus of the story is how one chooses to act when one is out of one's depth.

Mélusine has one great leading character, another who if not as good is a scarily well-written schizophrenic and therefore a very different viewpoint, an excellent background, and thorny, difficult problems of survival, understanding, and morality to wrestle with. So far, so good. The place where it occasionally came up short for me (beyond early scenes with Felix that are painfully hard to read) is pacing. We can guess from the start that the interesting parts aren't going to happen until Mildmay and Felix meet, but setting up the players and getting the plot underway takes some 200 pages. It's not that nothing happens in those 200 pages — many of the scenes are individually quite enjoyable — but there's still the feeling that this is all mere setup. And even after Felix and Mildmay finally meet, there's another extended travel section, with assorted side excursions, that I became weary of a bit before it was over. I liked the characters (including the supporting cast, which is excellent and mostly free of stereotypes) and where Monette was taking them, but sometimes they take their sweet time getting there.

This is the first book of a series, which partly explains the quantity of setup and should also serve as a warning that you won't get a complete ending. Much that's set up here is not resolved, including the primary plot motivation. The primary focus of Mélusine, though, is Mildmay and Felix's burgeoning relationship, and that plot reaches a satisfying and worthwhile conclusion that's wonderfully unsentimental and true to the emotional difficulties of the characters. I will definitely be reading the sequel.

Followed by The Virtu.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-11-12

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21