Sarah Monette’s stunning debut novel, Melusine, is the first book in The Doctrine of Labyrinth series. The next two books in the series, The Virtu and The Mirador are currently available, and the fourth and last book Corambis is scheduled for release in 2009. This book and its successors are exactly the types of books I like and have become my favorites I have read so far this year.
Felix Harrowgate is a powerful wizard who is part of high society in the city of Melusine. When at a party with the Lord Protector and other important people in the city, Felix’s enemy Robert reveals a dark secret about where Felix came from and his former profession. Shunned by the others after this revelation, Felix visits the one person who knows about his past – the wizard Malkar who found Felix and became his mentor in wizardry. Malkar controls Felix against his will, harnesses his great magical power, and uses it to break The Virtu, a magical item that has been around for ages and contains spells to protect the city. Once his diabolical scheme has come to fruition, Malkar casts a spell on Felix preventing him from being able to tell anyone the truth about who actually broke The Virtu that drives him completely insane.
Thief and assassin Mildmay the Fox is approached by a beautiful young woman named Ginevra who would like to use his stealth to retrieve some of her belongings from her former lover’s house. Mildmay soon becomes romantically involved with Ginevra and entangled with her dealings with the infamous blood witch Vey Coruscant. Tragedy leads him into stupidity which puts him in the hands of a wizard who believes Mildmay will lead him to Felix, a key player in gaining revenge against the mage’s old foe.
Although it is thoroughly enjoyable, Melusine is the most flawed of the books in the series. The beginning is a bit abrupt, and Felix’s connection to Malkar has not been fully revealed so the control the old wizard exerts over him does not make as much sense as it does in later books. Felix and Mildmay do not actually meet until later in this book, which is the point where the story begins to come together.
The story is told by alternating between the first person point of view of Felix and Mildmay. The changes in perspective are abrupt, but it did not bother me at all. If you do not like one of the characters, it will not be too long before you get to read about the other, and if you love them both, it will not matter which one you are reading about.
The characters are certainly the highlight of this book and Monette did a fantastic job of giving both Felix and Mildmay very distinct voices and personalities. Mildmay’s heavy use of incorrect grammar and invented lower class slang annoyed me a bit at first, but eventually I got used to it and it’s hard not to love his character’s sense of humor and honest bluntness. Very little is seen of Felix in this book when he is not out of his mind, but his insane perspective was handled quite well and I enjoyed reading his sections, too.
This is dark fantasy at its best – gritty without being bloody and more about the characters themselves and the world around them than violence and swordfights. The suffering of the characters is heartfelt without being overwhelmingly depressing. Mildmay’s way of looking at the world around him can lighten up even the darkest of situations.
Those who would be offended to read a story containing bad language, rape, and/or sexual content should avoid this book, however, since all those elements are included. It’s handled so naturally, like its a part of everyday life and that’s just the way things happen sometimes and does not feel like it is intended for shock value.
I highly recommend Melusine to anyone with a penchant for character-driven, non-cliche dark fantasy that comes alive off the pages. It certainly contains some flaws but the characters are so realistically written that it does not really matter.