30 Days of Books: Day Two
Posted by Jen Moore
Day 02 – A book or series you wish more people were reading and talking about
The Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette. The popularity of this series suffered from two things, first some unfortuanate covers (I cringed in shame when buying Corambis), second from the arithmetic of publishing houses that meant that by the time the fourth book in the series came out, the second was out of print. (Not the first or the third. The second.) Find it, through your local library or Amazon or however you can. This series is amazing. In order, they are: Mélusine, The Virtu (out of print, alas), The Mirador, and Corambis.
I’ll be the first to admit it’s hard going; if I hadn’t started reading Mélusine while I was working in a call center and was trapped in my cubicle with whatever book I’d brought that day, I might not have kept going, but I did and you should too. There are two point of view characters; the first is Felix Harrowgate, one of the wizards of of the Mirador, and even more concieted, self-involved, and melodramatic than his title requires. Also, Felix goes crazy within the first fifty pages. And not just a little crazy: full-on psychotic break with hallucinations and paranoia (sometimes justified).
Your other narrator is Mildmay the Fox, a former assassin and current thief from Mélusine’s lower city. Mildmay is the opposite of Felix in almost every way; where Felix is a wizard, Mildmay is annemer, without magic. Where Felix is concieted, Mildmay has an extremely understated opinion of himself (although he does know that he’s a damn good thief.) Where Felix has a very refined vocabulary, even when he’s losing his mind, you can almost hear the Appalachian twang in Mildmay’s narration. And where Felix is a jerk, Mildmay is willing to give almost anyone the benefit of the doubt. Even Felix. Who Mildmay didn’t meet until he was already completely nuts.
And that’s just the first book. What really makes this series shine is the amount of character growth that goes on; there are no reset buttons here. Things that happen have permanent influences on the characters, both good and bad. Mildmay gets an injury that brings an end to his career as a thief, and eventually develops a little bit of self-esteem. And while Felix never really stops being a jerk (I don’t think he can), he does eventually learn to be a little more human.
The world is wonderfully complex, too. Mélusine has a kind of antique alternate-universe Parisian feel to it (they use the months of the French Revolutionary calendar); they also visit Troia which is very Greek. Ish. And then in Corambis, the final book of the series, they go north to that country, which I’ve described to people as a kind of steampunk Anglo-Saxon.
I think my favorite detail, though, is the magical system, which could only be written by someone who’s spent a lot of time in academia. (Monette has a PhD in English Literature.) The wizards argue incessantly about the differences between thaumaturgical architecture and architectural thaumaturgy, certain schools of magic do not allow for the existence of things which are very clearly happening anyway, and huge amounts of hypocracy are uncovered on the part of the institutionalized hierarchy. And — this is the best part — all the magical technobabble actually does make sense, if you’re willing to sit down and make the effort to understand what the hell they’re talking about. (You don’t have to, but one of the side effects of getting to know Felix is an unwillingness to just take his word for things, so it does become tempting after a while.)
The plot is kind of uneven sometimes — not the plot, I should say, but the pacing, since the plot is built entirely on the characters. The writing is incredible throughout, though, and the characters are so real that I never really mind. About fifty pages into the first book, Felix and Mildmay moved into my brain and set up residence; I have no doubt I’ll be thinking about these books for years to come.