Melusine is the first in Sarah Monette’s four book series Doctrine of Labyrinths, and as the fourth, Corambis, just came out, the series is complete, and those people who wait for all the books in a series to come out before starting it can now safely start it—except that the second book, The Virtu, appears to be out of print.
The series is an example of my “type two” series. There’s volume closure, but you need to read the books in order and you need to have read the earlier books for the later ones to make sense.
The world is a detailed secondary fantasy world, with a history that feels real and detailed and is mentioned only in the way people really mention history. The characters also have extensive backstory and are very real. The characters and the world are the real strengths of this series.
Melusine begins with two first person point of view characters, Mildmay and Felix. They both live in the city of Melusine, but otherwise at first glimpse they couldn’t be more different. Felix is a court wizard, Mildmay is a cat-burglar for hire. Felix lives in the lofty Mirador and is the lover of a prince, Mildmay lives in the stinking lower city and falls in love with a shopgirl. Their voices are unmistakable—here’s Mildmay:
I got there early. It’s a habit, like always knowing how to find the back door of anywhere you walk into. It don’t mean nothing in particular, just, you know, she could be fronting for the Dogs, even though I didn’t think she was. No, since you ask, it ain’t a nice way to live, but it sure beats the fuck out of dying.
I stood on the battlements for an hour, my hands clenched around the edge of the parapet, barely feeling the cold. The stars shone heartlessly against the vast indigo drape of the sky. Below me the lights of the Lower City were warmer, smaller, the sordid markers of the things that happened in Melusine after dark. I did not look toward Pharoahlight. I had hoped that I might replace the burning darkness of my mind with the simple, remote darkness of the night sky. Sometimes I could calm myself that way, but tonight the longer I stared at the sky with its untouchable beauty, the more I wanted to hurt someone.
There are books that are like a Greek temple, direct in the sunlight, all columns and stillness. These are like a gothic cathedral, embellished with detail on detail, magic and betrayal and ghosts and gargoyles and voodoo and madness—Felix spends most of the book mad—and heresy and squabbling schools of magic and the Mirador and the Bastion and two different calendars. And there’s Mildmay, who thinks “fuck me sideways” is a reasonable sort of expresssion, and Felix, who worries about being caught out saying “okay.” It’s the kind of book where you want to read fast to find out what happens and you want to read slowly because you don’t want to get to the end yet. This is my fourth reading of it, as I’ve re-read it as each of the subsequent volumes have come out, and I found myself looking forward to the re-reading as much as to the new volume.
Felix and Mildmay are wonderful characters and I love reading about them, but I wouldn’t invite either of them to dinner. Mildmay would be too quiet until he told some appalling story, and Felix would insult all the other guests. I love Mildmay’s stories. I love the names of the characters in them and the way they are consciously stories that he tells. I like the way that connects on to the wider story he is narrating of what happened, to which we are the auditors—Mildmay’s is as much an oral story as Felix’s is a written one.
Melusine is largely an exploration of what it means for Felix and Mildmay to be brothers. Mildmay accepts that they are pretty much as soon as he meets Felix, and Felix is just thinking about it at the end of the book. But that relationship is central to this first novel, it bends everything around it.
Monette does some interestingly odd things here, subversions of genre expectations. To start with, we hardly get any sane Felix before we’re plunged into his madness. We don’t see what he has to lose before he loses it. That was a brave thing to do, and very unusual. She does Felix’s mad point of view brilliantly—it helps that it’s magical madness, so he’s seeing real ghosts and people with animal heads that relate to their personalities, or colours in their auras that are actual information. But even so, writing half a book from a madman’s perspective is daring, and it’s impressive that she makes it work so well.
Then there’s the subversion of “getting the adventuring party together.” Felix finds Gideon and Mildmay finds Mavortian von Heber and Bernard, and they all come together and decide to go off together—and then they get separated again almost at once. If you’re used to the way fellowships are formed in fantasy, this is outrageous. I wanted to cheer.
And there’s the Gardens of Nephele. Felix dreams about them and wants to get there, and he and Mildmay struggle across an entire continent and an ocean to get to them, so Felix can be healed, and it turns out their appalling mother (she sold both of them as small children into what amounts to slavery) came from there. It’s a quest destination. But when, after appalling struggles, they get there, we see it mostly from Mildmay’s point of view, and they’re horrible to Mildmay, not to mention incompetent at healing him. It’s a very realistic magical sanctuary—the people are petty and snotty and involved in power politics and they despise Mildmay’s manners and accent and past. (I’m not convinced his accent would be so awful in other languages, but never mind.) They do manage to heal Felix, but by the time they do it feels like the least they could do.
The use of French and Greek to represent languages that have the same relationship to the nominal Marathine of Melusine as French and Greek to do English disconcerted me the first time I read the book. The months have the French Revolutionary names. I kept trying to figure out a connection to our world. There isn’t one, it’s another subversion of conventions—since Tolkien, people have been making up fantasy languages, generally with much less success, Monette uses real ones. Every word here has been thought about, every metaphor, every name, and these tiny details piled on details help to give the impression of gothic labyrinthine detail that make the series so interesting.
This volume ends at a good resting point, the journey is over and the healing accomplished, there’s still a lot to be done. As a quarter of a story, this is a good break-point, not a cliff-hanger but still with a lot you want to know.