Mélusine by Sarah Monette
To quote Memory’s Twitter feed from the end of January, “Favourite books + favourite bloggers = nervous-making”. You see, Memory at Stella Matutina is one of my favorite book bloggers—we’ve similar tastes in books, her reviews are always interesting, and she introduced me to Tigana. Mélusine is one of her favorite books. I’d actually rented it once before, but hadn’t managed to get to it in time. But when I returned a little worse for wear from Ireland, it was the first thing I picked up. And… I didn’t love it beyond all reasoning.
Mélusine begins in the enchanted city of its title, a decadent city marked by political squabbling amongst the wizards and a seedy underworld. In the first world is Felix Harrowgate, a former prostitute posing as an aristocrat at the behest of his hated master, who has bound him with magic. In the second is Mildmay the Fox, a scarred thief just trying to make a living. As Felix deals with the fallout of the discovery of his past and loses his grip on sanity, Mildmay finds himself drawn further into magical politics, until their paths must meet…
I love the French Revolution. Not all the death and destruction, of course, but when I think fondly upon my French heritage, it inevitably comes up. (For my brother, it’s Napoleon.) The world of Mélusine, or, at least, the city itself, is patterned after it. There’s even the Sanguette rather than the guillotine, which I smiled over. Interesting new settings in fantasy are always a plus with me, even if they’re still European-based. The other cultures Monette present are interesting, especially the last one we meet and end the novel in. However, the learning curve can be a little steep—Monette throws in a complex calendar system that I still don’t quite understand, even with this handy chart from her website. To be fair, that reflects reality in the French Revolution, but it extends to the magic system. There’s a fine line to walk between making a world feel lived in and going a little too far, and I think Monette errs a little. But only a little. It’s a mostly comfortable setting with some trouble spots.
Mélusine takes a while to get started—around page two hundred and fifty of four hundred and twenty-one pages. That’s a bit much for my taste. Not to say that all the build-up isn’t important or pleasant, but it does feel meandering at the beginning, which I didn’t care for. But once it does pick up, it goes along swimmingly—the atmosphere of Felix’s madness, Mildmay’s gently wounded approach to life, and the wonderful setting of the last few chapters. Monette’s writing style is efficient with occasional flair, but mostly efficient.
But Mélusine is ultimately a character-based book; once they meet, Felix and Mildmay ultimately abandon the main political plot that’s going on. It’s a novel that lives or dies on the strength of its characters, and I just didn’t react to them that strongly. A heartier plot would have helped with this, I think. Felix, poor thing, stumbled for me when he failed to defend his delicately and hardwon status as an aristocrat the very first time someone throws a barb at him about his past, and I never quite bought Mildmay’s cursing. Now, I do like these characters. The true Felix, whom we see only briefly at the beginning and ends of the novel, has a graceful cruelty to him, but he spends much of the novel insane. Just as it distances Felix from the world around him, it distanced me the reader from him as a character. However, Mildmay, who is the much more interesting of the two, lives a full life. The beginning of the novel is chiefly occupied by him being involved in a love story, which I thought would go further. In any case, the Felix and Mildmay relationship is warm and troubled—I refer you to Memory’s various reviews of the novel to express how much.
But warm relationship or no, I’m just not that invested in them to continue with their adventures, although I imagine the next novels in the series have a bit more of a structured plot. I can’t imagine Felix got away with… well… what people think he got away with, to keep things relatively spoiler-free.
Bottom line: Mélusine is one of those novels that lives and dies on the strength of its characters—if you don’t like Felix and Mildmay, you’re not going to like the book. The French Revolution-inspired setting is much appreciated, however. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.