Sarah Monette’s Melusine series is a remarkable set of four novels. I’ve been reading them for a while now, and they’re the sort of books where although I owned them all, I didn’t read one immediately after the other… because I didn’t want the story to finish yet.
Also, because it might hurt too much to keep going.
Do not read these books if you are really squeamish. There are some really distressing bits that I found quite harrowing; violence, and sexual violence, are at the heart of the first couple of books in particular. There’s more to the stories than that, but the violence is a fundamental part of the character and motivation and problem for both of the main characters.
The series is made up of Melusine, The Virtu, The Mirador, and Corambis. The stories are about magic, relationships, the abuse of trust, the recovery of trust, good governance, loyalty, sabotaging relationships, and how to heal. Yes they are complicated. Yes it is worthwhile. Yes even the distressing bits. Mostly.
All of the books have at least two viewpoints. The later books add another viewpoint, which is a bit weird as a reader but I think I get why Monette did it; it makes sense in terms of rounding out the main characters, and I think it makes sense artistically too, to give the world greater breadth. And here’s the slight spoiler: the narratives are from the perspective of brothers, but you don’t know that for quite a long time and it’s rather startling when it’s revealed, because they are so very different (and themselves don’t know their relationship). Monette is painstaking in developing the two different voices – Mildmay is uneducated and rough, and in telling his story is way down the spoken end of the register. He can’t be bothered impressing you; if you’re worried about his language and grammar and manners, well that’s your problem, yeh? Felix, on the other hand, is refined and learned and precise and all of his words are very. consciously. chosen. And learning how he came to be that way is part of the pain of the whole narrative trip. I love both of them; Felix I want to cosset and Mildmay I want to have a drink with (with no dice around. and very careful measures). Their relationship was by turns inspiring and despair-inducing, as they figured out how to relate and not destroy one another.
Aside from the fraternal relationship it’s the world that Monette imagines that really, really works. For starters, she does something which could be corny and sad, but which manages to make work: her world is tantalisingly close to ‘the real world,’ with linguistic analogues just nearly making sense… but which then skip away from whatever French or Spanish or maybe Latin word you thought it was meant to resemble, with a hint at meaning but well and truly going its own way (homosexual relationships described as being about tarquins and martyrs… Cabalines, the Curia, Troia, the Empyrean…). This could have been disastrous. Instead, it is charming and elusive and adds possible depths that are enchanting as you try to chase them down. Frustrating sometimes, but with a come-hither look nonetheless. (Much of the narrative revolves around sex.) And then there’s the world of the Mirador, home of Felix and the centre of the first three novels (although much of the stories themselves are set elsewhere, the Mirador is the heart of the narrative). It’s a brutal and unpleasant place. So is the city around the Mirador. The thing I loved most about the fourth novel in particular is that although Felix and Mildmay have journeyed a long way from the Mirador before, it’s in this novel that the old-fashioned-ness of that place is placed in stark contrast against a city that – in the same world – is recognisably modern. After spending three novels thinking the Mirador was brutal but normal for this world, this contrast made me question everything that has come before by showing it in an entirely new light. Without compromising any of the narrative or world-building that has come before. Sarah Monette: brilliant.
This is not a happy series. Bad things happen. To men and women and if there are kittens, to kittens. Characters experience grief and loss and pain, they are cruelly treated and wrongfully accused and it’s just generally bad for pretty much everyone at different points. And sometimes this is pretty heavy going, as a reader. But there are good bits, too, not least of which is Mildmay’s sardonic, evil wit; he skewers the egos and shrugs off delicacy and is brutally honest. But other than that… there is also hope. There are good relationships – which are sometimes screwed up, yes, but they do exist. There are positive things that can be done, even in the midst of madness, and light never entirely abandons this world that I imagine as being lit (within the Mirador at least) entirely by smokey candles and never ever by the sun. (This is not in the least upheld by textual evidence, but it’s the vibe of the thing, man. It’s always night there. Or at least overcast.)
It’s not widely available – I got my copies from Better World Books – but if you’re keen to read fantasy with brilliantly realised magic and complex relationships, this is a pretty good bet.
I was rather surprised, going from these books years ago, to the Goblin Emperor. It took some adjusting.