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Saturday, August 11, 2007

"The Mirador" by Sarah Monette

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Because of Jay Tomio I decided to take a chance on Sarah Monette’s debut novel “Mélusine” (2005) and while the book started out slow it ended up being a very rewarding read, partly due to its imaginative milieu, but mainly because of its unforgettable characters Felix Harrowgate & Mildmay the Fox. While I didn’t enjoy “The Virtu” (2006) as much as its predecessor, that didn’t stop me from looking forward to “The Mirador”, the third book in the author’s four-volume series which, according to Larry’s (Of Blog of the Fallen) excellent interview with Ms. Monette HERE (Part I) + HERE (Part II), is called The Doctrine of Labyrinths. Sadly, I was a little disappointed with “The Mirador”, but before I get into that, let me just warn you that SPOILERS are ahead…

In “Mélusine” and “The Virtu”, our protagonists suffered a lot—Felix losing his sanity, being declared a traitor for breaking the Virtu, having his powers used for evil by the vile Malkar Gennadion, enduring a tumultuous love life, etc. Meanwhile, Mildmay had a lover that was murdered, was crippled by a magical curse, tortured by the aforementioned Malkar, and basically bonded in slavery to Felix, his half-brother, by the obligation d’ame. So while life has somewhat returned to normal in the two years that has lapsed since the end of “The Virtu” and the beginning of “The Mirador”, everything is definitely not peachy.

For one, while Felix is basically back to where he was before the shit hit the fan, the number of his enemies has grown, his latest relationship, this time with Gideon Thraxios, is on the rocks, things between him & Mildmay are no better, and even though his nemesis has been defeated, he’s still haunted by Malkar’s ghost. With Mildmay, it’s hard adjusting to life with a disability, especially compared to when he was a legendary kept-thief/assassin, plus he’s still broken up by the death of Ginevra and has plenty of other demons to deal with, not the least of which is Felix. Then there’s Mehitabel Parr, a governess first introduced in “The Virtu”, who is now an actress for the Empyrean theatre with her own set of baggage. With all three characters, Ms. Monette comprehensively explores what makes each of them tick, painting quite a vivid portrait of the human psyche, which has sort of become the author’s forte. Unfortunately, as fascinating as this aspect of Ms. Monette’s books has been, I just thought there was too much of it in “The Mirador”. After all, as the saying goes, ‘you can have too much of a good thing’.

In this instance, sure, there are plenty of subplots going on in “The Mirador”—Felix trying to discover a way of preventing Malkar from coming back to life; Mildmay looking into Ginevra’s murder (Who ratted them out? Who ordered the hit?) and getting caught up with his past; Mehitabel’s dark secret and how it will affect her actions in the book; Steven Teverius, the Lord Protector remarrying for political reasons; the unexplained death of Amaryllis Cordelia; the Bastion’s offer of amnesty to the Mirador court; and so on. However, the meat of the book mainly focuses on the characters and their internal struggles, with the actual plot plodding along until literally the very end of the novel where events finally pick up and we get some satisfying revelations that go back all the way to “Mélusine”. As rewarding as this was, I just felt it took too long to get this point and that the climactic events were somewhat rushed. Additionally, some of the more interesting concepts that had been introduced in the previous novels—the Khloidanikos, Oneiromancy, Sibylline cards for divination, obligation d’ame, labyrinthine magic, mikkary, etc.—were forsaken a bit in favor of the penetrating characterization, which sometimes became either too redundant or too melodramatic. As a whole, I just wish there had been more of a balance between the characterization, the worldbuilding and the story.

Speaking of which, another bone I have to pick is that the entire book takes place in the city of Mélusine, and mainly in the Mirador. Obviously that’s expected given the novel’s title and the nature of the story, but some of my favorite moments in “Mélusine” and “The Virtu” were visiting different locales such as the Gardens of Nephele and the Bastion. Don’t get me wrong, Mélusine is a wonderful creation, but it was already superbly introduced in Ms. Monette’s debut, and since we don’t really get to see any different aspects of the city in “The Mirador”, I didn’t find Mélusine to be quite as compelling this time around. Thankfully, the fourth and final book in the series looks to take place in areas we haven’t explored yet so I look forward to seeing what extraordinary backdrops Ms. Monette comes up with next.

Despite the faults I had with “The Mirador”, I can’t help but be impressed with what Sarah Monette is accomplishing as a writer. The Doctrine of Labyrinths is easily one of the most original fantasy series that I’ve read and I recommend it for several reasons. 1) Felix & Mildmay. Told through first-person point-of-views, the half-brothers are distinctly unique, not just their personalities & backgrounds—Felix is an ex-prostitute, homosexual, aristocratic wizard; Mildmay a scarred, no nonsense assassin & thief—but also the way Ms. Monette writes them, which is quite dynamic. Mehitabel is a nice addition—her narrative comes across somewhere between Felix & Mildmay and the stage-acting life she embraces is realistically realized—but to be honest, she’s not quite as captivating. 2) The world. Whether it’s the Mirador, Pharaohlight, the Lower City, the Bastion, etc., the world that Ms. Monette has created is alluringly strange and it’s hard not to get caught up in its dark beauty. 3) The magic. I can’t say that the concepts Ms. Monette uses are exactly original, but they are stylish, mysterious and fit in well with the tone of the series. 4) The story. While the plots sometimes get overshadowed by other elements, they are still fairly complex, unpredictable and daring. And finally, the writing. I’ll admit that it took me a little while to get used to Sarah Monette’s prose, but once you do it’s pretty obvious that you’re in capable hands.

In the end, give Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths a try. Sure, it’s definitely not mainstream fare, meaning a lot of people may not be able to enjoy it, and the series does suffer from its share of weaknesses, and yes, I was disappointed by “The Mirador”, which I didn’t think was as strong as its predecessors, but I guarantee you haven’t read anything quite like The Doctrine of Labyrinths and that in itself, is well worth the effort…

FYI: The fourth and concluding volume to The Doctrine of Labyrinths is called “Summerdown” and comes out in 2008. Before then, you can ease the wait with Ms. Monette’sA Companion To Wolves” (October 16, 2007-Tor), which was written with Elizabeth Bear. Finally, check out Larry’s review HERE for a second opinion.


MillyFoxe said...

Just in case you wanted to know, according to Ms. Monette, the title of "Summerdown" was changed to "Corambis".

Robert said...

Thanks for the heads up :) I'll update the post.

aqua said...

"Corambis" !!?

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