First up: the inimitable Sarah Monette and her Doctrine of Labyrinths series. This review is particularly aimed at jaded_grin as one of the heroes is a deadly, red-headed Fox. He’s just her style. >]
I picked up Mélusine because it was on display at the library where I was working at the time and I liked the picture. I read the blurb and thought, ‘why not?’ I was at that time devouring nearly a book a day and as you could imagine I ran out of material to read very quickly. I read works by famous and/or popular and/or respected authors some of which I even liked, but I don’t think any of them inspired me to walk down the road to the nearest bookstore that same day and pick up a copy for myself (hardcover, no less).
It starts off with a story, almost an allegory that parents would tell their children to warn them away from playing with dangerous things. The voice is that of a lower city (i.e., slum dweller) tough called Mildmay. Mildmay the Fox is one of his names and he’s quite famous in his way. His name is short for ‘Mild may your suffering be at the hands of the wicked’ because his mother joined a flaky cult shortly before he was born and inflicted that upon him. And what the story warns you to do is stay away from hocuses. That’s what people from the lower city call wizards. It’s a phrase I now find falling naturally from my lips instead of magician or wizard.
Mildmay doesn’t speak much in real life. He got a nasty knife cut when he was 13 or so that got infected and killed off most of the muscles on one side of his face. It ended a budding career as a street thief, and caused Keeper (a concept too difficult to explain here) to train him as something else. He is supremely confident about so much; his abilities, his training, his understanding of people and their motives, but that scar makes him hide a lot of himself. Between the scar and his lower-city drawl, it’s hard for him to talk clearly but he loves stories – hearing and telling them. He can’t really read or write, but he can remember stories. Every time the POV switches to Mildmay he tells it like a story over a pint or on a cozy couch. There’s no real distance between you, the reader, and Mildmay, the narrator. You’re just talking...
It makes him endearing and vulnerable and a friend, rather than a character.
The other main protagonist is something rather different. Felix, I’m sorry, Lord Felix, a wizard of the Cabaline, a member of the Curia (the wizard’s ruling body) and a denizen of the Mirador. He hobnobs with nobility, sleeps with the Lord Protector’s brother, and insults whom he chooses with immunity because he is, inarguably the most powerful of the court wizards. He’s on top of his world and destined to remain there.
It’s a lie of course.
Felix has a problem, a weakness if you will. His former lover, mentor, owner, tormentor has plans for Felix. It sounds comic-book like to say they’re ‘dastardly’ and ‘fiendish’, but they are. However, the descriptions of what he does and how he uses Felix are anything but comic book. He steals Felix’s power, drives him mad and then abandons him to act as a diversion while he makes his escape.
Felix often tells us almost nothing, hiding his truths behind a labyrinth of words; or he tells us too much. He feels real distress at meeting the ghost of a young royal killed centuries ago in one of the Mirador’s endless battles for the throne, and we feel it with him, but then he can be so, so.. doh, grrrr. There are no half measures with Felix. You’ll either feel his pain or want to add to it by smacking him upside the head. By the end of the books, I had gone from one to the other and back again.
Of course the two of them are going to meet, but as much as I wondered how Ms. Monette would bring this about (the Mirador and the Lower City are physically within walking distance, but in terms of attitudes and priorities, they might as well be across continents) I hadn’t anticipated her twist. Neither did any of the people in Mélusine. It made perfect sense afterwards of course and I could see all the clues when I reread it.
The events in Felix’s life are usually the force that drives the plot forward. He’s the one everyone wants to control-punish-be close to-use, and he often agrees to things he has no idea how to deliver. It’s left to Mildmay to figure out many of the problems they face as they literally walk across a continent to find a race that may be able to ‘cure’ Felix of his ‘insanity.’
That’s the first book.
The next one, The Virtu, tells the tale of their trip back to Mélusine where Felix, in a mix of genuine contriteness and sheer ‘I’m going to show you all’ bloody mindedness, plans on fixing what he was forced to destroy. Mildmay, with nothing better to do and no one to do it with (at least not where they are) goes with him. Mildmay has been injured, invisibly and irreparably. His old profession is out and there’s too many toughs would love a chance to take him out so they can brag about caging the Fox or some such rot.
What’s he going to do? Might as well go with Felix to live as... not quite a servant, not quite an equal, everything and nothing at once. They go to the ancient Mirador palace with all its snotty, snobby citizens (and that’s just the servants) where he stands out like a crow at a budgie convention. He’s not the only one who feels uncomfortable. We do too as he tells us all the secret thoughts, the insults and insecurities that he can’t articulate to anyone else.
Did I mention that Felix can be a real asshole? Yes, he can be sweet and thoughtful and just... nice, but he doesn’t know how to sustain that. He’s powerful and super-smart with no tolerance for small minded people He’s also selfish, short-sighted and so completely wrapped up in his concerns that he forgets that he promised to do better. Poor Mildmay.
The third book is Mirador and takes place a couple years after the first two. Felix and Mildmay are firmly ensconced in the life at the palace. Felix loves it, Mildmay... not so much. He still sticks out like a Doberman amid herds of Chihuahuas. He pretends it doesn’t matter. We know different. Felix doesn’t seem to care or maybe he doesn’t see it, maybe he doesn’t know what do to fix it and maybe he doesn’t feel he has the right. It’s hard to tell with Felix.
This is the first book where events in Mildmay’s life drive the story; Felix, dealing with his own issues (as usual) is mostly oblivious (as usual) to what’s happening in Mildmay’s.
Mildmay decides to solve a mystery from his past: who murdered an old girlfriend and why. This leads to another mystery, the revealing of a secret or two, or three, the unravelling of a complex political plot or two or three. The death of a friend, an acceptance of what is (at least for one of them) and exile and freedom.
A third voice joins Mildmay’s and Felix’s here; Mehitabel Parr is an actress who joined them on their return trip to the Mirador. When given the opportunity to become the official mistress of the Lord Protector, the country’s equivalent to a constitutional monarch, she accepts, of course. This allows us to be surrounded by the arcane politics of ancient royalty and the webs of power that surround even a hedged in throne.
Where Mildmay tells his part of the story as one friend talking to another, and Felix often rushes through the uncomfortable bits, and wonders why you need to know, Mehitabel weighs her words and the impression she’ll give. She’s never really ‘off-stage’. It’s automatic for her for many reasons.
The fourth, and final, book in the series is going to be Corambis. This is the country Felix has been exiled to so that the Curia, the Mirador’s council of hocuses, doesn’t have to burn him alive. Corambis isn’t due out until April 2009 but I’ve already got it pre-ordered.
For more on the Doctrine of Labyrinth series, visit the author’s website: http://www.sarahmonette.com/
or visit the live journal community devoted to the series: http://community.livejournal.com/the_mir
For more by Sarah Monette, join her at her LiveJournal site: http://truepenny.livejournal.com/.
Edited: 27-Oct-08 to add the Corambis Book Cover