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Sarah Monette – Mélusine

August 13, 2015

40. Mélusine by Sarah Monette (2005)
Doctrine of Labyrinths, Book 1

Length: 490 pages
Genre: Fantasy

Started: 25 June 2015
Finished: 14 July 2015

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? Memory’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 23 January 2010.

A broken wizard
and a cat burglar have more
in common than thought.

Summary: Mildmay has been many things over his life – orphan, kept thief, assassin – but is currently making his living as a cat burglar in the slums of Mélusine. Felix Harrowgate lives at the other end of the social spectrum, as one of the powerful wizards who live in the Mirador, the city’s citadel and hub of its magical powers. Felix also has a dark past, which he had thought he had escaped, until his former master and tutor reappears and ensnares him in his newest web of scheming and violence, leaving him broken in mind and spirit, even as the Virtu – the source of magical power at the heart of the Mirador – is broken. Mildmay, too, is having a difficult time; he’s being hunted by some of the worst people in the city’s underworld, and is barely surviving day to day before he’s caught up in a finding charm cast by a magician… a magician who was looking for Felix.

Review: I ultimately wound up enjoying this book, although it took me forever to read, and I really wasn’t enjoying the first part of it at all (those last two issues are undoubtedly related). This book is very much character driven, not plot driven, and while that is very much its strength, it is also a weakness, particularly for a reader new to the series who is trying to get herself oriented to the world. There is a fair amount packed in right at the beginning – Malkar’s use of Felix in the breaking of the Virtu happens before page 50, before the reader really has a handle on the world, on who these characters are, or for what it all really means. (Also, this book is not shy about a lot of really dark subjects, including one of the most brutal rape scenes I’ve ever read – and I’ve read A Song of Ice and Fire – and a lot of this horrible brutality is *also* front-loaded in the book.) So Monette sets her hook early on: what’s going to happen to Felix? How does Mildmay fit into the story? However, she then follows it up with almost two hundred pages of very little happening. Felix has gone mad, and Mildmay has gone into hiding, and despite the structure of having brief chapters alternating between their two points of view, their storylines aren’t intersecting at all, and this was the part where it really started to drag (especially the descriptions of Felix’s madness, which just seemed to go on and on). The good news is that once Felix and Mildmay’s stories do start to intersect, things got much more interesting. Their characters are complex and distinct, with very clear individual voices (which admittedly was a positive outcome of the slow first half of the book), and their interactions and growth over the second half of the book were hugely interesting, and what saved the book for me and made me interested in and excited about reading the sequels.

Another thing that I found challenging was Monette’s style of worldbuilding. She did an excellent job of staying true to her character’s voices, one outcome of which was that they knew a lot about the world that the reader didn’t (they live in it, after all), and their narration would mention something – another country, a style of magic, a neighborhood, a slang term – without any explanation, since of course they knew what they meant. On the positive side, this meant that there were none of the flow-breaking infodumps that are common to many fantasy novels, but on the negative side, it meant that it was initially really hard for me to get absorbed in a world that I didn’t really understand yet, as I would frequently come across a term or a reference I didn’t recognize, and would struggle to figure out if it was something I should recognize but had forgotten, something I should be able to figure out from context, or something that was totally unfamiliar. Even something like a map would have helped me orient myself. I can appreciate the skill it takes to do the worldbuilding in this kind of naturalistic way, and I did have a much better feeling for things by the end of the book, but it made the early parts even more of a challenge to get into and get through.

Monette’s writing is lovely; her characterizations are rich and multidimensional and true to their own voices – Felix is more cerebral and poetic; Mildmay’s is earthier and more direct and full of gutter cant. (Mildmay’s side of things actually reminded me a bit of The Lies of Locke Lamora, although without so much of the humor to lighten things up.) Overall, this is a dense book, but I think it’s ultimately successful, and one that I think would actually improve with re-reading, and with the sequels. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’m reserving final judgement until I see what Monette does in the sequels with the world and the characters that she so laboriously built in this book. But on this book’s merits alone, I’d say it’s worth a try for people who are looking for character-driven high fantasy that’s not a typical quest, good-vs-evil type plot, and are willing to stick it out for an (ultimately worthwhile) slow burn.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Fantasy Cafe, Medieval Bookworm, Stella Matutina, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: This is the worst story I know about hocuses. And it’s true.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 35: “The Endmond’s Tor Cheaps mostly shut down at sunset, ‘least for the perishables, so the road was full of wagons, the drivers keeping to their same slow amble no matter what the hansom and fiacre drivers shouted at them.” – A small hackney carriage.
  • p. 41: ““And you’re useful, my dearest, but about as stable and resolute as an aspic.”” – a savoury jelly based on meat or fish stock, used as a relish or as a mould for meat, vegetables, etc.
  • p. 83: “And beneath it, a thin strand of threnody, the song that the broken Virtu was singing to itself.” – A poem or song of mourning or lamentation.
  • p. 310: ““What is this farouche murderer to you?”” – disorderly or intimidating in appearance or behavior; wild
  • p. 312: ““It’s just that – oh, Stephen will hate this – he’s become a metonymy.”-” – the substitution of a word referring to an attribute for the thing that is meant, as for example the use of the crown to refer to a monarch.

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