Melusine - A Review

by Wardog

Wardog indulges herself with Sarah Monette's debut novel, Melusine.
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Don't you just hate it when you start out liking something in a smug, ironic way and somehow end up it liking it for real? I began Sarah Monette's Melusine (which, for the record, sports a half-naked wizard on the cover with a haunted look in his eyes and a flag of red hair flying out behind him) expecting trashy, easily mockable fun but, having devoured the book with such enthusiasm and responded in such a genuine way to the characters, I cannot in good conscience deride it. Yes, it's trashy fantasy but only in the sense that it possesses in abundance all the strengths of that kind of book, by which I mean it's engrossing, intriguing and blissfully easy to read. Textual chocolate, if you will; the best, sweetest most meltingly delightful Lindt chocolate. Indulge yourself.

Here be (mild) Spoilers

Set in the pseudo-Renaissance(ish) city of Melusine, the book follows the fortunes of two half brothers, the seemingly upper-class Felix Harrowgate, spectacularly screwed up wizard, and the staunchly lower-class Mildmay, slightly less screwed up cat burglar. Felix gets tangled up in a Dastardly Plot to overthrow the city's magic and goes through about three hundred pages of hell, in which he is raped, abused, threatened, driven mad, sent to a lunatic asylum, forced to take the fall for the Dastardly Plot and generally broken into a thousand tiny pieces, before he and Mildmay finally meet.

As I said earlier, the book capitalises on many of the strengths of the genre, but it also shares some of its weaknesses. If you actually want, y'know, something to happen fantasy is perhaps not the genre for you. There is, I am sure, a plot in there some where but the characterisation is so deft and the world so well delineated that I actually didn't notice its absence. The book only really finds its focus when fate and circumstance bring Felix and Mildmay together; the preceding action feels rather like an excessively long prologue. Felix's plot, at least, has the virtue of necessity; understanding what he's gone through is a small step in the direction of not finding him unbelievably irritating and he is, after all, the key to the plot. Mildmay, however, seems to be marking time until the book moves on sufficiently to allow him to fulfil his main role in the story as Felix's only protector. Although things happen to him, they all feel a little irrelevant.

Ultimately, though, this is typical of the genre; it doesn't have prologues, it has first books. And, on the subject of first books, Melusine is clearly the introduction to a series, and very little attempt is made to maintain its readability as a standalone book. If I didn't know Amazon was winging book two, The Virtu, to me as I type, this review would be harsher because I'd be screaming with frustration. The internet tells me Melusine and The Virtu were originally planned as one book, which perhaps goes some way to explaining (if not excusing) the weakness of the ending.

On the other hand, although not a satisfactory conclusion to the action of the story, it was nevertheless a satisfactory conclusion in terms of character. One of the things I particularly relished about Melusine is the depth and detail of the characterisation and, whether it not it was a deliberate decision or a consequence of the division of the book, I found myself appreciating the way the Big Plot is always subsidiary to individual actions and character, especially in the sort of genre where saving-the-world-from-evil tends to be the order of the day. Basically I'm trying to say that if you're used to the way fantasy works then you'll have no problems with Melusine and you'll be refreshed by things-not-happening for legitimate character reasons as opposed to pointless fantasy tourism or spurious authorial intent. If you're not a fantasy aficionado, Melusine might still be an excellent place to start but wait until Sarah Monette has finished the series.

Melusine is narrated in alternating sections from the perspective of its two central characters; the constant changes in perspective and attitude works exceptionally well, and gives the book the same sort of bite-sized moreishness as the early Song of Ice and Fire novels. Felix and Mildmay have very different voices, Felix's very i-centric, faintly evasive, often madness-driven, interiority-focused narration contrasts strikingly with Mildmay's wryly humorous and action-packed street cant. It's the perfect device for exploring the world without subjecting the reader to tedious world-building exercises (sorry if I sound bitter, I've been living on the equivalent of a Super Sized Me diet of fantasy novels) and very soon creates an intense bond between the reader and the characters. I am hugely impressed by Monette's ability to evoke the atmosphere and the richness of her world without sacrificing the pace of the book in unnecessary explanations for the sake of the reader. The complicated calendar is an excellent example of this; knowing it's there enriches the reader's experience but I am infinitely grateful that Monette felt no obligation to inflict its intricate workings upon me.

The character of Mildmay is, quite simply, wonderful. Monette somehow succeeds in completely rejuvenating the stock fantasy trope of the thief-with-a-heart-of-gold. His street-slang is very well judged, never impedes intelligibility and never feels like a gimmick. The language slips occasionally. I remember tripping over "it commenced to rain" Mildmay, surely, would never use commence if he could say start. But for the most part he's beautifully written; his stories of the city and its history, particularly, are fascinating.

The Felix sections are slightly more difficult to deal with than the Mildmay ones I was certainly interested in him but I'm still not sure whether I like him, or how far the author wants us to forgive his flaws and think he's cool. To be fair he spends most of the book being mad or driven mad but, regardless of whatever brilliance he possess, he is still vain, self-destructive and shallow. There are reasons for this but the fact that Mildmay survived his (admittedly slightly less gruelling) upbringing with compassion, integrity and generosity intact and Felix turned into an utter prick doesn't do him any favours. As a case in point, near the end of the book, the brothers finally arrive at the Gardens of Nephele where they hope to find a cure for Felix's madness. Mildmay nearly kills himself getting Felix there; it is telling that, on waking up, his first act is to ask about his brother, whereas Felix's, on being cured, is to ask for some earrings to remind him of his former life of high society glory. Enough said?

Although an utterly absorbing technique, there are some problems with the alternating narration. It focuses the book so completely on Felix and Mildmay that secondary characters seem shadowy. The wizards were particularly indistinguishable, and very often secondary characters would fall away with little or no explanation. It makes sense that they would (Felix and Mildmay aren't omniscient after all) but it does make the book occasionally emotionally unsatisfying. Furthermore, because we only ever see other characters through the eyes of Felix or Mildmay it makes them less convincing than perhaps they could be. The villain, Malkar, for example, purrs in a sinister fashion and does terrible things to Felix but his plans, motivations and behaviour remain so oblique that he seems to be being Evil simply for the sake of it. And as for Felix's former lover, the beautiful Shannon, he basically flounces through the book, professes love for Felix but fails utterly to support him and throws a huff when the abused and broken Felix won't sleep with him. This little betrayal would have been far more effective had I been able to see even slightly what Felix saw in him. Similarly, we are constantly told that Felix has a cruel and devastating wit; but, when he isn't being mad, his flaying tongue seems primarily capable of delivering a fairly juvenile brand of sarcasm. I feel his pain.

Before I wrap this up in a storm of praise and adoration, I probably ought to make some mention of non PG content. Some pretty nasty stuff happens to Felix early on in the book including a rape scene that, although not graphic, is still quite unpleasant. And, let's face it, any book in which one of the protagonists could be described as "an ex-prostitute gay wizard" isn't likely to be appeal to everyone. Oh yes, I should probably say that Felix is gay, which could presumably be offensive to homophobes. I should add that Felix is gay in a rather well-done and understated way. He just is: no big deal. Move along. Nothing to see here.

In conclusion then, and nitpicking aside, this book is one of the most enjoyable works of fantasy I've read for what feels like a very long time. If you don't mind the slightly risqu content and won't be put off by the lack of a concrete conclusion, I heartily recommend that you give Melusine a go. It's immensely engaging, has a genuinely rich and complex setting that never oppresses you with unnecessary detail, and two excellently written protagonists. I'd even go so far as to say that it has revived my interest in fantasy. I could gush more but The Virtu has just arrived and I have to run off and read it.
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 22:17 on 2007-01-27
Sounds good! The only other fantasy I've ever read that featured a gay character was Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy, which did do the "OMG it's a GAY! How will the society DEAL with THIS?" thing a bit too much...
Wardog at 22:54 on 2007-01-27
Yeah, I loved it to pieces. I've so far ducked the Black Magician Trilogy but I may get round to it at some point. Mercedes Lackey does a selection of gay wizards as well, but they spend all their timing angsting and never getting laid. What is with wizards and teh gay - there's probably an article in there somewhere. I think it must be the fact they're generally depicted wearing dresses...err...robes. Can't be good for the manhood. I really like the fact Felix's sexual preferences are incidental - of course he's getting all incestuous over Mildmay now so it'll be interesting to see where Monette goes with that.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 10:51 on 2009-09-13
Another one wich is perhaps rather more bisexual is David Feintuch's The Still, which is also handled very realistically when it comes to peoples reactions and all.
Wardog at 13:05 on 2009-09-13
Oh really? I'm kind of burned off pretty, vulnerable, sexually ambivalent heroes for the moment (I didn't enjoy the 4th book of this series, for example, there's a Damage Report knocking around somewhere) but thanks for the recommendation. I'll look it out one of these days.
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 13:00 on 2009-09-16
It's a good book and it was nice to remember it after I read your article. That has happened quite often after I stumbled in your site while reading the articles. I read The Still as an adolescent in 1997 and I was a bit confused to really appreciate its kind of...hard fantasy, if that's the correct term.

I should probably read it again myself, since on recollection, it is a very well written work, with good characterization. It takes the risk of intentionally building the central character as an arrogant whiny teenager who, although with some reason, alianates people close to him before he learns how to behave like an adult and be a good leader. Although the he is a he and a heir to the throne to boot, it really centres on his development into aa adult and what it costs a person to be a leader.

Also, I'm not sure, but I think it might be pretty unique in a western fantasy story to have a love triangle of two males and a female where its center is on the male and it is represented completely straight and serious without comedy and with significant effect on the plot and not necessarily in a good way.

Sorry, but I'm unaccustomed in writing in english so the sentences seem to build up a bit. Oh well, more practice I guess.
Wardog at 16:32 on 2009-09-16
Your English is thoroughly excellent - and much better than my command of any other language. I'm definitely curious now, sounds like a really interesting book and I'll certainly try to lay my hands on a copy now, and I think you're right, a straight up love triangle that isn't two women / one man seems pretty rare. I can't think of any other examples, actually.

I'm not quite sure what 'hard fantasy' is compared to say, 'hard sci-fi' (which I know is lots of science) but I guess I'll find out when I read it :)
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 19:35 on 2009-09-16
I use it in the sense that if there's a thing called magic, it is very rare and very restricted in its application if there is any magic at all. For example Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic with only mystical phenomena a few times during two books compared to the Wheel of Time series.
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