MÉLUSINE & THE VIRTU (Doctrine of Labyrinths, books 1 & 2) by Sarah Monette
Ace, 2005, 432 pages, 0441012868, Hardcover, $24.95
Ace, 2006, 448 pages, 0441014046, Hardcover, $24.95
Along with my two previous posts for Chasm City and Transformation this makes the third entrant in my troika of favorite character novels since 2003. All right, I suppose that, technically, it would be a quartet, but I read Mélusine and The Virtu within less than a day of each other, so it feels as though I’m speaking of one solid story.
Prior to writing this, I found myself reading Charles de Lint’s review on A Soul in a Bottle (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 2007) in which he relates a habit with which I’ve become all too familiar: Buying book after book, adding to my stack of reading material, and, despite all of this, still having trouble finding a book that I really want to read; a book that I won’t want to sigh over and put down after the first five or ten pages. And I do this repeatedly, without ever really thinking about it, until, as de Lint says, “the book shows up.”
Mélusine and The Virtu are easily the books for me. I can think of no other novels that have engulfed my attention so completely that doing anything else, even common day-to-day chores, were either huge impositions or were ignored entirely. And it isn’t only that the books remained fascinating while I was reading them, but also after I had completed them. I’ve never had such a desire to reread a novel (or pair of novels) before, and I suspect that I’ll be unable to resist in the end.
There are many character-based fantasy novels out there. In fact, I would risk saying that the majority of them could be described as such. But Monette’s books seem to fill a gap, even among those other titles, where they become not just character-based but character-centric. The larger portion of the story revolves around relationships. Most specifically, the relationship between Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox, though of course there are numerous pairings and connections all through the novels, many of which serve to flesh out the personalities and motivations of the two main characters.
But Felix and Mildmay don’t interact right from the beginning. Before that we must meet them both individually and on their own ground: Felix as a wizard of the Mirador, and Mildmay as a cat burglar in the Lower City. Life then takes unexpected turns for both of them. Felix finds himself not just under the power of his old master Malkar once again, but also being used to destroy the magical artifact that protects the Mirador and the city. His forced participation causes him to descend into a madness from which he can only sometimes, and even then only partially, surface.
Meanwhile, Mildmay becomes involved with the lovely Ginevra and, later, finds himself on the run from the authorities. As he tries to keep himself alive, he winds up in the company of the wizard Mavortian von Heber, who is just as surprised to see Mildmay as Mildmay is surprised to learn that his presence there is the result of a magical summoning. Mavortian is convinced that Mildmay is the key to getting what he needs. Namely, Felix Harrowgate.
The resulting adventure pairs Mildmay with the broken and sometimes childlike Felix as they make an escape from the Mirador wizards and go in search of Troia, where Felix believes his madness can be healed.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. There’s still the second book, which deals with the aftermath of the events from Mélusine, and, of course, with the situation of the broken Virtu. At the same time, the relationship between Mildmay and Felix becomes even more complicated, as they are soon connected by an irremovable bond. But I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that you won’t want to read Mélusine without having The Virtu close by for the follow-up.
One of the truly remarkable elements of these novels, and probably the thing which endears us most immediately to the characters, is the distinctive use of language. Mildmay’s straightforward, unrefined voice, which sports its share of street slang, is as different from Felix’s smooth, grammatically correct speech as it is possible to be. Add to that yet another level, in which Felix’s madness causes him to, sometimes, think and speak in a disjointed and hurried tone, and you have yet a third character voice.
Aside from Felix and Mildmay, Mélusine and The Virtu offer a number of other unique characters, each with his or her own morals, dilemmas, and ambitions. There is a fair balance of those who are antagonistic toward Mildmay or Felix (or both), those who support them, and those who offer mere indifference provided that their own concerns are met. Of course, with the novels being written in first person perspective, these other characters are not as deeply explored (nor should they be), but their presence enriches the story and the interactions among the cast.
The settings presented by Monette are wonderful because of their detail. The Lower City, the Mirador, and all of the other locations in these novels each possess their own atmosphere, culture, and history. It’s easy to imagine the types of people who gravitate to each place, and it’s interesting to see where the places are, sometimes, responsible for the development of a character. The world is well developed enough that readers will become curious about the countries and cities that have been mentioned, but which they have not yet seen; though with everything that happens over the course of the story, there’s very little time to be distracted.
One other thing which caught my attention, and which pleased me to no end, is how Monette orchestrates her story and, in the process, she leaves crumbs for the reader as to its possible future. It might be a character, a memory, or an incident that seems to have little purpose in the scheme of things. But nothing turns out to be superficial, and readers will be both surprised and delighted to find that certain moments from Mélusine return to play much larger roles than originally anticipated. Of course, that leaves the question: what incidents from The Virtu will return in greater capacity during The Mirador? It’s a tantalizing question and will have most readers tapping their feet for the next novel’s release.