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.
… There’s going to be more, right?
This is really not the sort of book I would have been likely to read immediately off my own bat. 15 years ago, perhaps, but I haven’t really read secondary world fantasy like this for ages… and not necessarily for a reason I can put my finger on, aside from I Like Spaceships More.
Still, it’s on the Hugo ballot in The Time Of Rabid Puppies, and a lot of people whose opinion I generally respect have raved about it, so I wasn’t too sad to be sitting down with it as part of my Read The Hugo Ballot binge.
And I really liked it.
This stills seems improbable to me. Lots of ‘thee’s and formal ‘you’s and so on – the sort of thing that sometimes makes me break my eyes in the rolling. It’s goblins and elves for… no reason I can see? The elves have non-human ears which you only know because they’re described as doing things like flattening when the person is annoyed, and goblins just seem to have darker skin and maybe grow bigger than elves? But goblins and elves do intermarry; Our Hero is a product of just such an (unhappy, arranged) alliance.
And it’s not like the book is startlingly original in its plot. Emperor and his sons all die together, leaving one nearly-forgotten son by aforementioned unhappy marriage to inherit the throne. There are political machinations, palace intrigues, quandaries over who to trust, questions over whether someone in such a position can have real friendships… y’know, the normal things that happen when an unlikely heir takes the throne. We’ve all been there.
And yet. And yet. It works. Much of this is down to Maia, Our Hero. He may be the forgotten heir but he’s not completely stupid; clueless at times but not a Garion figure; possessed of a brain and determination and a desire to do some things his own damn way, thank you very much. I’m reminded somewhat of the story I heard once about Queen Victoria: that when she was crowned (I think?), one of the first decisions she made was to sleep in her room by herself – without her mother – for the first time ever. Maia isn’t just led around by the nose. But neither is he super arrogant, thinking he can do anything he likes and deciding to do just that; nor is he super capable in an impossible period of time. Addison strikes a good balance of learning the ropes and being actually, like, capable.
I liked many of the other characters (Csevet for the win), and the variety of female characters is really nice. I like the honesty with which Addison confronts the issues of arranged marriages, and the different ways of thinking about things like duty and honour.
Basically, when I finished reading it (in one day), I wrote that opening sentence: there
is going to more, right?