Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Mélusine

Mélusine by Sarah Monette
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really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy, 2010
Recommended to Shannon (Giraffe Days) by: Kathryn

I haven't been reading nearly as much Fantasy as I used to (there was a time when it was ALL I'd read, excluding books for school or uni), but I have quite a few (understatement) on my shelves, unread. This one was recommended by a friend who had several sleepless nights in a row while she tore through all four books. Hard to ignore a rec like that! I know people have complaints about this book, but I felt like my faith in Fantasy was rekindled after reading this.

In the city of Mélusine, in Marathat, is the Mirador. (It's clearly a city that likes M words.) The Mirador is the home of the Cabal: the Cabaline wizards; and the Lord Protector, who is annemer - non-magical. Outside the Mirador, in the Lower City, are the thieves and prostitutes, the poor and destitute. But inside the Mirador, all is sparkling and clean and lush splendour.

Felix Harrowgate is a wizard - "hocus", as the common people call them - of the Mirador. Having broken the magical bonds to his master, Malkar (a foreign wizard), Felix is at the prime of his life: the most powerful wizard in the Cabal; in a relationship with the Lord Protector's brother and heir, Shannon; popular and feared and loving it. Until the day his position - his very existence as a trusted Cabal wizard - is torn to shreds when a fellow wizard, Lord Robert, reveals Felix's secret: that before coming to the Mirador, masquerading as a wizard of noble lineage, Felix was nothing but a prostitute in Pharaohlight, a district known for the sadistic pleasures the rich can have with young boys.

In his spiralling despair and fear and depression, Felix turns as if out of habit to his old master, the man who had bought him at fourteen from out of a whorehouse in Pharoahlight, taken him to another city to train him and make of him a lifelong slave before bringing him back to Mélusine. Malkar has his own agenda, and Felix is instrumental to it. After letting Felix drug his sorrows, Malkar uses him in the worst way possible in a ritual that enables him to use Felix's magic to break the Virtu - the stone that the wizards swear to, that holds all the spells in the Mirador in place, that protects them all.

Felix's mind shatters alongside the Virtu. Under Malkar's compulsion, he cannot speak the truth and is accused of the greatest treachery and betrayal. He starts going mad. Even when the compulsion is broken, his sanity eludes him. Reduced to the lowliest beggar amongst his previous compatriots, Felix is dragged around by the wizards in their attempt to repair the Virtu.

In the Lower City, a thief and assassin, Mildmay the Fox, scrapes together a living as a cat burglar. His latest assignment brings him into contact with a young woman, Genevra, who needs him to steal back her jewellery and then help her sell a priceless necklace to much-feared necromancer. After the Virtu is broken, the Mirador goes scape-goating, rounding up and executing small-time magic hustlers and healers in the Lower City. Betrayed by his own fellow thieves, Mildmay is soon on the run, only to unwittingly respond to a summoning spell that brings him into the service of a foreign wizard and fortune-teller, Mavortian. All of Mavortian's skills at reading the future tell him that he needs Felix Harrowgate, and Mildmay is the key to getting him.

I'm a big fan of less traditional, formulaic Fantasy. While it's hard to escape the Quest formula entirely, Mélusine comes close. About half the novel takes place in the city itself, and deals with Felix's time locked up in the mental asylum and Mildmay's relationship with Genevra - I love this. Spending time with the characters actually living as opposed to chasing off after something. As Frodo proved, a Quest can take over your life. You're a different person while on a Quest. And a Quest narrative can become too focused on plot - the characters are empty shells once all the fuss has died down and they've "won". The parts of Harry Potter, for example, that I've always adored are the parts where nothing action-packed is happening: they're studying, they're having little dramas and going hormonal, they're dealing with family, they're exploring the school etc.

Since you're thrown into Mélusine without a paddle from the opening line, spending several months exploring the city and the society is helpful in piecing it all together. There's nothing particularly original or "alien" about the culture, but the characters do talk with an assumption you already know what they're on about, so there is some clue-gathering in that regard. I enjoy it. I don't like it when authors dumb-down their worlds and explain every little thing like the characters are conscious of our presence. (I'm reading a book right now that does that constantly, and it's getting old fast.)

Mélusine is a pleasant mix of traditional Fantasy and a more mature, modern ability to tackle the dark side of human nature. If I mention Kushiel's Dart, A Game of Thrones, Wizard's First Rule and the Black Jewels trilogy, among other, they all share this dark, mature approach that I don't have a good word for. Something violent, anyway. I'll even throw Outlander in there too, to shift the focus from Fantasy a bit. The thievery and boy-love reminded me a bit of Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner books, and even Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows, which is a weaker story, prose-wise. So no, it's not original or unique, regardless of which book came first, but I won't ever have trouble confusing it with anything else.

Told from the first-person perspectives of both Felix and Mildmay, who alternate fairly frequently, they both have very distinct voices which could easily become cheesy but thankfully manages to keep its head above water (the stylistic device, that is). When Felix sinks into madness, his voice changes yet again and he slips into present tense to highlight his mental state: lost, confused, afraid, delusional. He starts seeing colours around people that reflect how they're feeling, and sees them with as monsters, with the heads of animals or as corpses or statues - whatever reflects their nature. When Felix and Mildmay are brought together, you then get the two different perspectives on the same scene. In terms of Monette's handle of her craft, her ability to create two very distinct, very alive characters, she's excellent. I would like her proof-reader to learn the difference between lie, lay and laid (in their various tenses), because it was never once used correctly and this kind of thing is very distracting.

Structurally, the story comes together neatly with backstory revealed along the way. For much of the book, it's not clear where the story is going and it's the characters who drive you on and make it hard to put the book down. Later, there is a Quest journey to bring back Felix's sanity, and for people who like a Fantasy book to be a complete story in and of itself, you'll be pleased to know this has that. No cliffhangers here.

There are plenty of unanswered questions though, and the bigger over-arching plot that's still to be resolved. A few details I didn't understand. I don't get what the wizards actually do, especially as they're not allowed to use their powers to help anyone. Why is healing forbidden? Especially when they seem free to do nasty things to each other. I also couldn't follow the colloquial way of telling the time and passage of years, which uses different words. I could have used a glossary, to be honest. But they're small quibbles amongst the things I liked.

I especially liked that neither Mildmay nor Felix are completely sympathetic or necessarily likeable characters - deeply flawed the both of them, they nevertheless have enough charisma to make you pay attention, and enough of a sob-story past to make you care. At times I did feel the story, especially Felix's half, got too self-indulgent, and I can understand if readers lose patience with Felix. He's a prick as a wizard with all his mental faculties intact, but he's also easier to tolerate. And he does have his moments of being decent. I don't altogether trust him, though. Mildmay is much more straight-forward, and I love his expression, the one he uses when he's really frustrated and exasperated and has lost patience: Well fuck me sideways till I cry" which pops into my head every time I feel the same way, now. Yep, it's a winner. So glad I came across book two, The Virtu in a second-hand book shop a few months ago and bought it even though I hadn't read this one at the time. There are times for following your gut, yes? Indeed.
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Reading Progress

August 8, 2009 – Shelved
August 8, 2009 – Shelved as: fantasy
Started Reading
March 10, 2010 – Finished Reading
March 11, 2010 – Shelved as: 2010

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Maribel (new)

Maribel Shannon, please for once give a bad review lol. Your review have m e buying books I would have never even glanced at. Thanks again for yet another great review.
I just finished Possession by A.S. Byatt and I loved it and will be posting a review soon.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) And here I thought I was being really picky lately! I have no remorse - I've hardly read a decent book all year! Well, it just seems like either I've been reading a lot of shockers, or I'm much less easily pleased than before.

Oh goodie. I don't have particularly good memories of Possession so it'll be good to hear someone else's perspective. :)

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