Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guest Review: Melusine

Recently, Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers asked me to participate in one of their features, the guest dare. Every month they dare someone to read and review a book they may not read otherwise (which is a fabulous idea and a lot of fun!). So today I'm over at their blog with a review of Dead Witch Walking, the first book in one of Thea's favorite urban fantasy series, The Hollows by Kim Harrison. In return, I dared them to read the first book in one of my favorite series, Melusine by Sarah Monette (The Doctrine of Labyrinth #1).

These two wrote a fantastic review on the book, as always - very in depth and insightful, straightforward and honest, and lots of fun to read. Give a warm welcome to Thea and Ana!


Author: Sarah Monette

Genre: Dark Fantasy

Publisher: Ace
Publishing Date: June 27th 2006
Paperback: 496 pages

Stand Alone/Series: Book 1 in the Doctrine of Labyrinths series (currently 3 books published with the 4th and apparently, final, book to be published in 2009).

Why did we read the book: We dared Kristen to read Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison and Kristen dared us back!

Summary: (from
Mélusine-a city of secrets and lies, pleasure and pain, magic and corruption, and destinies lost and found...

Felix Harrowgate is a dashing, highly respected wizard. But the horrors of his past as an abused slave have returned, and threaten to destroy all he has since become.

As a cat burglar, Mildmay the Fox is used to being hunted. But now he has been caught by a wizard. And yet the wizard was looking not for Mildmay, but for Felix Harrowgate...

Thrown together by fate, these unlikely allies will uncover a shocking secret that will link them inexorably together.


First Impressions:

Ana: I confess that when Kristen dared us to read a Dark Fantasy I trembled inside. Dark Fantasy is not one of my genres of choice but considering that the whole purpose of these dares is to get us out of our comfort zones, I decided to man-up, take a deep breath and read away. To my surprise, within the first two PAGES, I was completely captivated by Mildmay, one of the two main characters and as I kept on reading, this feeling only grew exponentially to also include the uniqueness of the world I was stepping in and the author’s distinctive narrative voice (or rather, voices).

Thea: Unlike Ana, I am a sucker for books (or films, or whatever) of a darker nature. I'm not much for happy endings, and I'm a bit of a sadist with my characters--I like it when they suffer a little bit. After talking with Kristen about darker fantasy novels and she decided to finally read Kushiel's Dart (one of my personal favorites) she recommended Melusine to us. I eagerly ripped into this novel, and at once fell in love with co-narrator Mildmay. Melusine is an enjoyable novel set in an intriguing city in a world of magic. I have to agree that the biggest strength of this novel is Ms. Monette's convincing voice for both main characters, Mildmay and Felix, making Melusine a unique read.

On the Plot:

Felix Harrowgate is a powerful, arrogant young wizard of the Mirador – the upper fortress, the political and magical centre of the city of Melusine - who seems to have everything: power, respect, the love of his lover Lord Shannon and the jealousy of those that can’t stand him. But all comes crumbling down in one single night, as the book opens, when his enemy Lord Robert, tells everyone his worst secret: that his past is a sham, he is no lord and that he used to be a whore from the lower parts of the city. Suddenly all of the darkness of Felix’s past comes rushing back and he makes a series of mistakes that takes him back into the hold of his former master Malkar who uses Felix ( in a ritual that is violent and dark) and his power to break the Virtu, a crystal that contains the magic of the Mirador. Malkar then binds Felix with a compulsion spell that prevents him from telling anyone the truth about who broke the Virtu and which sends him into madness hell.

Mildmay, the Fox is a cat burglar and former hired assassin who accepts a new commission from a young woman called Ginevra and falls in love with her. Their path cross with a blood witch called Vey Coruscant with tragic consequences. When things start to heat up in the Mirador and past seems to be catching up with Mildmay, he ends up with a new commission by a wizard, away from Melusine and which will lead him to Felix Harrowgate – when the two parallel stories will finally converge.

Ana: Plot-wise Melusine is a very simple affair: not very much happens in the way of moving the plot forward from the moment Malkar breaks the Virtu using Felix’s power and his descent into madness and Mildmay’s path that will inevitably lead him to Felix.

What is complex is the world-building and the narrative itself. The book opens and we are right bang into action with Felix being shunned by his peers after Robert exposes Felix’s past and it all feel very abrupt. There is absolutely zero preparation, no info dump, no buttering up for the set up of the story. It is as if, the reader is supposed to be part of this world and in the know already about the Magic, the terms the characters use, the different orders and lineages and heresies - and as much as I like this writing technique (who likes info-dump?), I sometimes felt lost. And it was extremely frustrating because I – about the decadence of Melusine and the obvious ignorance of the wizards of the Mirador, for example.

Although it is clear that the author has this incredible world she created I thought she failed in some aspects to convey these details to the reader. It was as if, I was standing outside this amazing Christmas shop with the most fascinating toys inside that I would never be able to touch. There were only glimpses of this world in the small droplets of information the characters deemed to give me. For example, I still have no clue what exactly the Bastion is and what is the different between the Bastion and the other order of magicians or even if the Bastian IS an order.

At the very least, I would have welcomed a dictionary of terms ( I still have no idea what the frak a septad means) and a map (a map! I SO needed a map!) .

With regards to the narrative: this is where Melusine shines brilliantly. It alternates between Felix’s and Mildmay’s – both in first person - and each voice is completely distinct, coming from different places but equally gripping. If I was to judge this book based on the narrative alone? It would have been a resounding 10.

Thea: What Ana said. Plot-wise, nothing really happens in this book. Everything happens in the opening of the novel. Melusine begins with crash as Felix is exposed for his past as a whore, and he reverts to his cruel former abuser's comfort, and then is brutally placed under a spell and his magic used to break the Virtu. Subsequently, Felix goes batshit insane...and spends the rest of the novel (some 400 pages) in this state. Mildmay goes through his day to day shenanigans, eventually meets up with Felix and they skip town together. Simplicity is not a bad thing at all, but the plotting of this novel is unremarkable. It's with the characters that Melusine draws its strength. This is all fine and good...but I'm a sucker for heavy, twisting plotting, and I wish there was MORE going on.

That said, the world Ms. Monette creates is fantastic, lush and darkly appealing. Melusine is a city of decadent wizard lords and cutthroat thieves, with bleak people and an awe and fear of the magic that surrounds them. The depictions of the city and the people in it, their customs and fears were wonderful--I loved especially Mildmay's illustration of life beneath the Mirador as a former kept-thief. The ruling court of Melusine is as many courts are portrayed in fantasy novels--petty, corrupt and self-absorbed with games of power and control.

I do, however, have to agree with Ana's assessment. I caught glimpses of this wonderful world but was never allowed to appreciate it fully. Ana used the kid looking inside the christmas toy shop analogy--I'll be the hungry scrawny kid, looking at cafe diners eating delicious food on a cold winter's night. The smells, the sights waft out to me, but I'm never allowed to taste the delicious smorgasbord of delicacies. Such is Melusine. There was a lot of potential, a lot of teasing, but never enough information to really comprehend this world. And a MAP, a map, my kingdom for a map! So many locations are talked about and traveled to, and I dearly wish that there was a map to give a more tangible picture of this city and the other realms of the land. Even something this small would have been an invaluable addition to the story.

My only other gripe was how unfinished things felt with this novel, and how many characters and plot lines seemed to be dropped completely. What happened to Gideon and Mavortian, and everyone else? How about Malkar's fate? WHY did he want to break the Virtu in the first place? So many motivations, so many plotlines were dropped completely, and I assume they will be picked up in the next novel...but the manner they were just shrugged off was incredibly frustrating for me here.

On the Characters:

Ana: This is strictly speaking, a character-driven book. It alternates between Felix and Midlmay’s POV – and where one is engulfed in darkness and despair and madness and misery, the other has a conspicuous levity and sense of humour that contrasts with his own inner demons. Both characters go through a lot and even though Mildmay is by far my favourite and the most sympathetic of the duo, after great consideration I came to the conclusion that it is Felix’s journey that is the meat and bones of this book: and the greatest trumps of Melusine. What makes it unique. Because his narrative is 99% madness. The very few moments we have a small glimpse of a sane Felix, all we see is an arrogant, pompous ass with self-destructive and violent tendencies, who is ashamed of his past and who wears a mask in public. When is driven insane by the spell Malkar sets on him – and he is AWARE that he is going insane, he is aware that he has a compulsion spell that prevents him from the speaking what needs to be spoken to absolve him from everything people accuse him of - he is stripped of this mask and all that there is left is a man and his fears and own demons and it is very basal , primary even that he keeps going back in his mind to his horrible childhood when he was a kept-thief and was horribly abused and sold, and slaved, and raped.

Felix narrative is made of repetition: of monsters everywhere and of creeping darkness but it is this very repetition that makes it so gut-wrenching. A strong man that is reduced to tears and to begging and is absolutely horrifying. As much as I adored Mildmay’s voice and heart and cunning smarts (or giant stupidity depending on the way you look at it) , I kept turning the pages because I wanted to read about what was happening to Felix and how he was going to get away from it all.

When the two character’s path converge I KNEW what was going to happen what they would mean to each other – and I was extremely happy that I was right. Mildmay’s immediate acceptance of the reality and Felix’s reluctance were much attuned to these characters as well and I want to read more of what will happen to these two.

Thea: This is indeed a character-driven book, alternating between Mildmay's and Felix's point of views. I found myself drastically preferring Mildmay's frank and hilarious narration to Felix's repetition, and unlike Ana, I found myself rushing through boring crazy Felix to get to more Mildmay. Honestly, I could care less for the insane and pompous Felix--of course this is a personal opinion made of a fictional character. In terms of writing, Felix is certainly written well. He hides behind his layers of deception since his past as a whore on the streets of Melusine, pretending to be a high born lord--and when his deceptions are stripped bare, Felix is weak and alone, turning to his tormentors for comfort and then driven to madness. Felix is weakness personified--he is a deeply flawed character, and I applaud Ms. Monette for writing someone so unlikable. For all that I found myself irritated with Felix's intrinsic weakness, it made him all the more real and tangible as a character.
I took my clothes off, deliberately, one garment at a time, not looking at Mildmay, giving him his chance to stare his fill at the wasteland of my back.

He said nothing until I was settled in the tub, my knees practically up around my ears. Then, as I was working the soap into a later, he said in a quiet, careful voice, "What happened?"


"The guy who...?"


It was a comfortless lie, but I could not admit that being a kept-thief, so commonplace to him, had damaged me so deeply. If I told the truth now, he would remember I had not told the truth earlier, and that would tell its own tale as clearly as my scars did. Let Malkar bear the weight of blame.

We were silent for a while as I applied soap vigorously, and then he said, "I got my face laid open in a knife fight."

I looked at him; he met my eyes steadily. "They thought it would heal okay, but it got infected. This side of my face ain't moved right since."

No wonder he would not smile. I looked away, scalding with shame. He had answered my lie with truth, my silence with honesty. I plunged my head underwater, but I did not feel cleaner when I came back up.

Such is Felix, and the relationship between these two characters. Infuriating, selfish Felix, assuming that his experience as a kept-thief was so much more traumatic than Mildmay's; that Mildmay's experiences on the street are "commonplace". Such is Mildmay, with his open acceptance of Felix, despite his madness (though this is one of his saner moments) and his haughtiness. The relationship is skewed, but coldly realistic with one character determined to give and the other to take.

My only writing gripe with Felix was how repetitive his narrative was. This book is nearly 500 pages long, and half of that is devoted to Felix saying the exact same things over and over again--seeing animal heads and colors in his madness. For the first 100 narratives or so, this was a novel and fascinating technique, but after reading it every other page, it becomes extremely tiresome.

In contrast, Mildmay (or Milly-Fox, as he calls himself sometimes), was what made the book for me. A thief with a troubled past, Mildmay wears his scarred face with an honesty and humor that makes him irresistible as a protagonist. He tells stories, narrates with a crude voice, and yes, faces his own inner demons in this book. Although he's seen as a murderer and lower than scum in seemingly everyone's eyes in Melusine, he has much greater strength than the supposedly high-born and noble Felix. Mildmay does not pretend to be something he's not, and he meets criticism head-on, knowing everything he did was to survive. And I can get on board with that. Many times I felt compelled to skim Felix's sections, but never so with Mildmay. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan.

Final Thoughts, Recommendation and rating:

Ana: For all of its narrative splendour, beautifully draw characters there was something …hollow about Melusine. It is as if all the potential I felt, especially with regards to the world building were never truly explored. In the end, after many hours of turning the pages rather rapturously the one question that I had in mind was “is that it?” and not “where can I get the next book”. Still, I recommend the book, and I will most definitely be reading the next one…I will just not be running to be book store to get it.

Thea: I enjoyed and liked Melusine for the well-written characters and especially for the narrative voices of the novel. But I have to agree with Ana--I felt as though something was missing from this book. Perhaps this is because of the lackluster plot, or the dropped storylines, perhaps it was something more, the literary equivalent of a soul? I don't know. I did like this book though, I just saw the potential for much more. I will, however, definitely pick up book 2, The Virtu, and give the series another go.

Notable quotes/ Parts:

Ana:I loved when FINALLY the stupid wizards from the Mirador realised that Felix was under a spell and were able to help him. I actually clapped my hands when he left the asylum. The build-up was so tense, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.

Thea: I loved the section where Mildmay, Bernard and Mavortian are traveling down the Sim and run across the lake monster, the Kalliphorne. For safe passage they must help her sick husband. It's a creepy, fantastic scene.



Thea: 7 Very Good

Thank you, Kristen, for the lovely opportunity! It was a blast!

Thank you for the guest dare idea and the fabulous review, Ana and Thea! It was definitely a lot of fun!


Anonymous said...

and thanks for daring us back Kristen! ; D

SparklingBlue said...

Hm, sounds intriguing, and the cover looks nice.

Carolyn Crane said...

Great review. This one has been on my shopping list for a while, ever since I read about it at Renee's blog. I really love a character driven story like this, even though I rarely read dark fantasy. I'll be even more curious to read it now!!

Renee said...

Ooh, I have much love for this book (series!)

While it seems to me that Felix is the main character (his actions drive the plot,) Mildmay is the one that I just love to read. You're right. SM does an incredible job establishing each voice as distinctive. Though Felix broke my heart, like Thea, I kept rushing thru Felix's narrative to return to Mildmay's

It is an overwhelming world, that I think SM just scratches the surface of in book 1, but really fills out over the course of the series. The time/calendar system also drove me crazy. SM actually has an explication of Melusine's calendrical system and, yes, A MAP of Melusine! :-)

Great review, ladies!

M. said...

I read on the author's livejournal somewhere that even though most readers like Mildmay more, it is more of Felix's story.

Ref: 'nothing really happens, plotwise' - I'm puzzled by this. Strategic murder of lovers, being shut up in insane asylums, having to escape from the city by secret passages, magical foretelling,magical torture shipwrecks, near-drownings, laying ghosts from many centuries past to rest, creating labyrinths, hiding identity during travel among hostile foreigners - to me, all of these count not just plotpoints, but pretty darn good ones. If they didn't register for you, then wow, you must be reading some seriously exciting stuff! :-)

The dropped storylines - they do get picked up again. I personally was satisfied with point the author chose to close off the first volume. It seemed a logical and emotionally satisfying point, and led me straight on to the second volume.

orannia said...

Thank you so much Ana, Thea & Kristen!

Hmmmm. I have to say, ever since I heard you were reviewing this book (and I read the summary) I have been wanting to read it :) I love character-driven books - one of my favourite books is To Ride Hell's Chasm by Janny Wurts. I spent most of the book not knowing what was going on but loving the intense emotional rollercoaster I was on with the characters.

Am off to order Melusine from the library :) And I will keep the map etc. handy :)

Karen Mahoney said...

Great review from those Book Smuggling gals! ;)

You know I really liked this book. Personally, I'd give it an 8, but I think you make some good points.

Thea said...

Sparkling Blue--The cover is rather eye catching, isn't it? It looks more romancey to me than fantasy, but don't let that fool you! Definitely give this book a try :)

CJ--Thanks! If you are looking for a character driven story, look no further. I think part of my issue with this book was because it is so character-heavy, but that's just a matter of personal preference :) This is certainly a dark fantasy to try, especially if you're relatively new to the genre.

Renee--Felix really is the main character, you're absolutely right. I'm interested to see what the next book is like, with Felix no longer out of his mind bonkers. Maybe that will endear him more to me? I hope :p

Thanks for those links to the map and calendar--that definitely helps! I wish publishers would get on board and print these in the actual books. I am a sucker for maps.

M.--Put on paper like that it does seem like a lot more is going on than we let on in our review...but i think the point, at least for me, was that these events are nothing more than a laundry list. These plot points aren't developed, they don't drive the story. There is action without reaction, plot without any setup or reasoning behind it. We don't SEE or experience what happens; rather, it simply happens. Felix's narrative is so convoluted and repetitive that the actual experiences of the asylum, or the shipwreck or whatever are irrelevant. We know these things happen, but they don't happen. If that makes any sense.

I know this book resonates with a lot of readers, and maybe part of that is reading later volumes and getting into it more. But for me, Melusine was good, but not spectacular. It didn't strike that passionate chord with me like say a Kushiel's Dart or a Lynn Flewelling novel. I still liked it, and will continue with the series though!

Orannia--Thank you! And I hope you get a chance to snag this from the library :) It's definitely got some full characters and should hit the spot if you're craving a character-driven fantasy.

Karen--thanks dude :) Clearly this book and series has a really strong following, and I'm interested in seeing how the next book in the series goes. Maybe it'll strike that chord with me (and Ana) too :)

Kristen said...

Ana - You're welcome. ;) Looking forward to The Virtu review when you and Thea get a chance.

SparklingBlue - Thea's right, the cover does make it look more like a romance than it is. I do like the covers, though, especially the one for the third book (even though my least favorite character is on it). It just has this mysterious atmosphere that I find intriguing.

Carolyn Jean - If you like character driven novels, this one is a good one. My favorite books are the ones with a lot of focus on the people in the story and with the fantastic characterization, I loved this one.

Renee - Oh good, another fan! Which is your favorite? I loved this one, but The Virtu is easily my favorite in the series. I prefer Mildmay as well, but I kind of like to read about messed up people so I liked Felix, too. With each book in the series I read, though, I just love Mildmay even more.

M. - I found the story satisfying too, although I can understand why some would think not a lot happened. Things did happen, just not quickly and the main focus was Felix and Mildmay. I was very glad I had bought the next book already when I was done - just had to read it.

Orannia - Thanks for mentioning To Ride Hell's Chasm. It sounds right up my alley and has been added to the wishlist. I hope you enjoy Melusine!

Karen - It is a great review! I actually gave this one a 9 because it resonated with me so strongly, but I also can't disagree of the criticisms of it. Even realizing it was flawed while reading it, I just didn't care because the characters were so well drawn.

Thea - As M. mentioned, the dropped storylines do get picked up in the next book. I think that one is the strongest in the series (so far, at least). It had much more forward movement as far as the plot went and a lot of the questions I had after reading Melusine were answered. Plus I just loved Mildmay even more in this one.

So, you convinced me to read Kushiel's Dart in spite of the scary page count... Now I need some Lynn Flewelling advice (didn't know you were a fan). I have been meaning to read something by her for quite a while. Which series do you recommend starting with?

orannia said...

Thank you Kristen :)

I am looking forward to hearing what you think of To Ride Hell's Chasm. I think it's an amazing book...not easy to get into because it is rather slow paced but the depth to the characters and the descriptions... And if it helps Janny Wurts includes a glossary, which is very useful as the world-building is quite complex IMO. Oh, and you might spot the name Orannia when you're reading too :)

Renee said...

Kristen: Yes! I'm a big geeky fan. :-P
When I look back on the series, I have to say, Mélusine is still my favorite. F & M's journey across country is amazing.
A few months back, Sarah Monette did this amazing Q & A series on her blog, and gave some great insight to the series.
On the "if you like" vein, Havemercy is a recent read that really reminded me of Mélusine. There's a review of it over at Dear Author today! :-)

Kristen said...

Orannia - To Ride Hell's Chasm sounds wonderful! I don't mind a slow pace if there is lots of character depth to make up for it. And I'll watch for the name Orannia when I do read it. ;)

Renee - I did read the Q&A with Sarah Monette on her blog a while back. It made me want Corambis even more. Thanks for the recommendation - Havemercy has been added to my wishlist. I've been wondering about that one for a little while, but you've convinced me!

Anonymous said...

Melusine is a novel I postponed reading for a while due to its low rating on (a high rating doesn't guarantee quality, but a low one is a fair warning; I generally avoid anything with less than 4 stars). But when I finally did read it, it CLICKED for me. I loved Felix, the ultra-charismatic yet flawed and troubled bad boy. I loved the mood and the language, Felix's travails and his madness, the skewed, unreal reality we saw from his mind.

The first half of the book was hard to read, it was just so dark and heartwrenching. Yet there's something utterly fascinating about how thoroughly and completely Felix was being destroyed - betrayal by someone he loved and trusted (somewhat, the evil wizard), brutal physical attack, rape, magical violation, then instead of comfort, meeting distrust and coldness and contempt from his friends and lover, losing his position, his sanity, abandoned by everyone, locked up in a place that threatened to destroy all humanity left in him. The section in the prison was the lowest (in terms of spirit) point of the book for me, made that much worse because it resonated with several other books that depicted the horror of an institution systematically taking apart a person's body and soul (like the boarding "school" in The Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop, omg, that seriously may be the most haunting thing ever. Or Renegade by L. Timmel Duchamp. Or even One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These stories don't have happy endings, people do not get out all ok and move on with their lives.)

Sarah Monette puts her PhD in English to good use. It's quite amazing how distinct she makes the voices of Mildmay and Felix. I read on her blog that she did a white page re-write of the novel. A comparison of a scene excerpt between the two version was quite impressive.

But in the end, it comes down to the fact that the book resonated with me. Kristen, I think we are definitely on the same wavelength as far as what clicks for us in books. I've just made up my mind to read The Book of Joby (previously reluctant because it's so big, and is neither written by a female author nor features a female protagonist, but if you loved it, there's a good chance I will too.)

Kristen said...

Anastasia - Well said, I couldn't agree more. Melusine (and both sequels) really clicked with me. As much as I loved Mildmay, I seem to be in the minority who also enjoyed reading about Felix. He's so disturbed and haunted and for some reason tormented characters just appeal to me. Sometimes happy and light is good but most of the books that really stick with me are ones like this one - dark with deep characters.

The way in which Monette wrote both characters was brilliant. Each had a first person perspective and each had a unique voice. I could have easily known exactly whose point of view I was reading without having the name at the top of the page. Felix is so charismatic and confident yet underneath it all so insecure, and most of his thoughts relate to himself somehow. Mildmay is introspective yet very observant about his surroundings and the people around him. Both have haunted pasts and both handle it differently yet underneath the surface in so many ways they are a lot alike.

I missed the page re-write she did; that sounds like it would be interesting.

I'll be interested in hearing what you think of The Book of Joby. It is one I enjoyed but it's also very different from many of the books that have resonated with me so strongly (Wraeththu, Monettee's series, and Transformation). There is still a character who is put through hell, but Joby also didn't have the same level of appeal to me as many of the other characters in the aforementioned books. Even though there isn't a main female protagonist, there is a pretty decent female character (whom Joby at one point realizes is far more courageous than he and a lot of the boys).

ediFanoB said...

Well done ladies!

The book is on my shelf.I thin I have to read it in near future.

Abby said...

You guys sooo nailed my reaction to this book. I was lost and confused through most of it, and at the same time so admiring I couldn't quite put it down.

Regarding the plot - sure, a lot happens, but it doesn't BUILD.

Plot is supposed to escalate, one step at a time. This was a series of incidents, and I was so frustrated with the journey in the second half - "it seemed like a good idea to go south". "It seemed like a good time to leave the city." Why did the wizards go to that tower, not anywhere else? Why did a secondary character (not to spoil, I'll say an acquaintance of Mildmay's) appear, then disappear again from the story? What was the point of her? What exactly happened in the Boneprince scene, and what was its importance?

I got extra frustrated at the point you mentioned near the end, when some main characters were "left behind" and neither Felix nor Mildmay ever spared any of them a thought again. A minute ago they'd all been in danger. What happened to the rest of the group at the inn?

The Kalliphorne scene was truly wonderful, though - my favorite too. And I actually did like the madness scenes, though there were a boatload of them. They were just so imaginative.

Oh, and I too yearned, yearned for a map...