Mélusine by Sarah Monette

[I have a very big bone to pick with Sarah Monette‘s Mélusine: it is not a stand-alone novel, being the first of a series (a quadrilogy?), and no where on the cover is this information given. I mean, it says it’s a first novel, and there’s an extract of her “next” novel inside, but until you actually reach the end of Mélusine and then read the extract do you find out that this book doesn’t stand on its own. And there is a part of me that doesn’t mind because it doesn’t interfere with the reading process (I’ve sort of developed a way of not checking how many pages are left and just staying in the moment – it doesn’t always work, but often it does!) but it does mean that I’m currently stuck, unable to get my hands on the next novel (poor, poor Student!Roh). I dunno why publishers choose to do this (are they afraid we won’t buy first stand-with-something books?) but it always, always annoys me.

(Larry offered me a sneak peek at an interview he’s conducting with Monette, and it turns out that her title for the series is The Doctrine of Labyrinths. It’s a nice title, and I grudgingly admit that it would be counter-productive to know this through most of book 1, though by the end of book 1 it is almost a given. So fine, fine, I forgive you, evil Ace Books that lied by omission.)]

So. Felix Harrowgate, wizard at the Mirador (the Upper City, socially, politically and economically, of Mélusine) is revealed to be an adventurer who is not in fact from another country, but rather an ex-prostitute from the Lower side of Mélusine itself. In the wake of sudden ostracism Felix falls yet again into the clutches of his former (Evil!) mentor, Malkar, who uses some very, very unpleasant magic to make Felix break The Virtu, which is basically a great big orb that chanels the magic of the Mirador and all the wizards in Mélusine. Malkar does a bunk and leaves Felix to the tender mercies of his former peers. Felix is damaged, physically, mentally and magically, as a result of Malkar’s attack.

Mildmay the Fox, cat burglar from the Lower City, accepts a commision from one Ginevra Thomson – a simple theft of jewelery from her noble ex-lover. Once that is done she intends to hand the jewels over to Vey Coruscant, who is, even for the Lower City, Bad News (it takes a great deal of self-dramatisation or a very bad reputation, and sometimes both, to be called “Queen Blood”). Vey Coruscant has a dangerous agenda of her own, of course, and when a necromantic summoning goes awry Mildmay and Ginevra flee and go into semi-hiding. In the meanwhile, the entire city is shocked by the damage done to the Virtu, and the Lower City is being targeted by official forces in a “hurt someone so we feel safer” maneuver.

Things happen.

The novel is narrated from Mildmay’s and Felix’s point of view, both in the first person, and I really do love how distinct their individual voices are. Felix speaks in the refined tones he learned for his decade-long masquerade in the Mirador, Mildmay speaks in the accents and tone of the Lower City; their voices are fluent, rarely clumsy. For these contrasting(and yet in some ways similar) narrative threads alone, Mélusine is an easily-read novel.

This novel seems to me to be actively engaged in exploring the psyche of the vulnerable male whose body has been attacked and marked – Felix is recovering from a very brutal physical/mental/magical attack, and Mildmay is under threat of physical/magical attack through most of the novel. Both have suffered physical woundings in the past, and both have their share of emotional and psychological pain to deal with in their own ways. The focal point for this, in this novel, is Felix – his wounding and his reaction, and his search for healing, form the main plot of the latter half of the novel. (Mark!)

Mazes and journeys, being lost and being alive, form a major theme of the novel, and perhaps the series. If I were writing a paper I’d be hazily trying to form a link between Felix’s mental regression, labyrinths, the journeys he and Mildmay undertake, and the ghosts that request, continually, to be allowed to move on – the I Am Lost metaphor is, I suspect, going to crop up again and again through the future novels (though of course I make this sort of aggressive prediction lots of times and am almost always wrong).

Felix and Mildmay’s characterisation is excellent, methinks – in some ways these are two men who are very alike in character, but in carriage, education and language they seem completely unalike. In some ways, they seem to complete each other – the way a mirror, by providing a left-right symmetry, might “complete” someone who looks into it. Together, their scars cover an entire body. One of them has surprising moments of kindness, the other surprising moments of cruelty. One of them is extremely (and surprisingly) attractive, the other is extremely not so. One can read in more than one language, the other can speak fluently in more than one language. One of them is mad/regressed to childhood, the other is younger, but currently physically and mentally capable… One comes from the Mirador, the other from the Lower City. Together they comprise all of Mélusine, and Mélusine is a place of darkness and light, of squalor and plenty, of magic and the mundane. Their interactions, and some of their interactions with the other people around them, are a tangled, real, delicate delight.

I have very few pacing issues – I think there was some sequences that are more rewarding for a reread than when I came across them the first time around, but for the most part the pacing is steady. Mélusine is a character-driven novel, and Felix and Mildmay are engrossing characters who don’t let us down.

I’m not quite sure how to look at the world Mélusine is set in just yet – obviously it owes a great deals to the romance countries of medieval (?) Europe, and I did keep hoping that the myth would come into play, but while the city is quite happily peopled and financed by monsters (ah, la, I pun like a punster! Read this book!), on this one score I was doomed to disappointment.

Con time – Felix and Mildmay are wonderfully introspective characters, and every so often they’re wonderfully observant characters too. But Felix’s peers baffle me. I cannot truly understand the decisions they make as a group, and even given the rigid nature of an institution they seem hard headed, clumsy, biased and cruel. Which is all very good in helping us pity Felix, but I am truly not sure of why they say and do some of the things they say and do. I’m hoping that this is because we see them so rarely from the point of view of a sane and clear-thinking Felix. Most of Mildmay’s acquaintances seem to me to be decidedly underdrawn, though of course this might simply be because he doesn’t spend enough time with them to show us more.

It also bothers me a little that for a world so rigidly concerned with magic, and with different schools of magic, most of which seem to have very clear cut methodologies, the reader is allowed so little insight into the workings of those magics. but then again, this will most likely be seen to in the future books.

And finally: Malkar. Since there are going to be at least two (three? I think the fourth book is out in 2008) more books, I daresay this one will be rectified, but currently all I know of Malkar is that he is Evil! and harmed Felix and the Virtu. I can’t completely believe in him as a real person.

It’s a dark, gothic, character-driven novel. It’s got passion and maps and ghosts and superb images and imagery. It’s got old tropes seen from new angles, and is a new voice, from a new author, whom we need to pay attention to now, not five years into the future.

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3 responses to “Mélusine by Sarah Monette

  1. I want this book. Where is my passel of books? *hint hint*

  2. So. Now that I am done with my dissertation and should reward myself with books for being such a good girl – is this the one I should buy?

  3. Hmm. I prefer the Lowachee books, to be honest. Also, I own them all and can lend them to you.

    But it’s worth buying, methinks.

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