“Ain’t we both monsters?” Sarah Monette’s The Virtu

The Virtu is the second book in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and I don’t think it would make very much sense if you hadn’t read Melusine first. It’s very much the second half of a story. However, there is something I can say without spoilers, which is that a lot of fantasy series are about huge world-destroying issues, and this one isn’t. There is no dark lord, the world isn’t at stake, it’s all at personal scale or city-state against Empire scale, and it’s “unpleasant Empire” not “Evil Empire.” The politics—inter-country and court politicing—feel plausible and on the kind of level that actual people could affect. It’s one of the interesting things about it.

The Virtu is the story of a journey across country, the mending of a broken magic object, and the developing relationship between two people, neither of whom know how to deal with people being nice to them.

If you like Swordspoint, you may very well like these, but don’t start here.

Felix and Mildmay are still trying to figure out what it means to be brothers, and this is complicated by the obligation d’ame. It’s hard to see how Mildmay could have a worse feeling about not doing it than doing it, considering what happens. Mildmay’s feelings are usually textually supported, but… well. Felix was bound to abuse it, whenever he wanted something enough. It was inevitable.

The academic magic in this book is terrific. It’s interesting and it’s cool and it fits with the world and what we have learned about magic before and it feels like the way people do that kind of thing. The different schools of magic with their different metaphors are really cool. The way Felix manages to fix the Virtu feels just right. The dream of the gardens, which in Melusine is a plot-device, here becomes something more, an interesting magical construct in its own right. Everything fits and has logical consequences and second order implications. When Felix uses oneiromancy to trap Malkar at the end, conquering him as he has conquered the Sim, that’s very effective. This is a book—a diptych—that has earned its end.

The labyrinths underlying the series really come to the fore here—in Melusine we had the Trials, the maze in Hermione and the maze they make in Nera to free the ghosts. Here we have the book, the underground labyrinth in Klepsydra, the goddess of labyrinths (oh yes, and death), and the water maze under the Mirador.

Some people have said they have trouble liking Felix. Well, I don’t like him either, but I don’t need to like everyone in a novel. I like Mildmay a lot, inarticulate creature that he is, and that’s sufficient for me, considering how interesting the continuing hints of the world are. I have to admit I liked Felix better mad. Felix is an arrogant sod, and knowing how damaged he is underneath makes me understand him better but not like him any more.

Mildmay’s bad leg is another thing where Monette goes against genre conventions. People don’t tend to get permanently hurt in fantasy novels. Mildmay was cursed before the story began, and he’s been avoiding the curse. It catches up to him twice in Melusine, and at the beginning of The Virtu he accepts that he hasn’t really been healed, that he’s crippled. Even when he has to do things he isn’t physically up to, and he does it, she never lets us forget the difficulty, whether it’s going down stairs into a labyrinth or climbing out of a window:

I could do this. I’d been an assassin and a cat burglar, and I’d done harder things than get down a pillar with two arms, one leg, and a crippled hocus on my back. I was sure of it, even if I couldn’t right then think of none.

It’s never glossed over. And as someone with a bad leg myself, I’m qualified to say that Monette gets it pretty much right.

The Virtu has an excellent dramatic conclusion, and the series could have finished there leaving me wanting more but not unsatisfied—but I’m glad it didn’t.


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