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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

“Corambis” by Sarah Monette (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Sarah Monette Website
Order “Corambis
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Listen To An Excerpt
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Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “The Mirador

INTRODUCTION: When I read “Mélusine”, the first volume in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths, I was so impressed that I could not wait for the next book, “The Virtu”, which finished the story started in “Mélusine” and affirmed the series as one of my personal favorites. Ending on a very emotional note, “The Mirador”, the third Labyrinths volume, was one of the most powerful novels I read in 2007, and a Top Five for me in fantasy. Needless to say, “Corambis”, the fourth and final volume in the Doctrine of Labyrinths, was the fantasy novel that I was most anticipating in 2009, and a book that came with exceedingly high expectations. And after finishing the novel, it’s safe to say that “Corambis” met those expectations. Not only that, but its daring and unexpected structure catapulted the Doctrine of Labyrinths to the very top of my all time favorite (completed) fantasy series...

SETTING: While the first three books of the Doctrine of Labyrinths took place in the medieval-like city of Mélusine with an extended peregrination to similar locales, “Corambis” breaks with tradition and takes place almost entirely in the Aristocratic/Commercial Republic land of Corambis, with no recurring characters other than Felix and Mildmay. Not only that, but “Corambis” has a completely different feel from the rest of the Labyrinths universe, with steam trains, subways, universities and technology-based magic called “aether”.

Historically, Corambis has just ended a brutal three-year-old insurrection from its southern province formerly known as the kingdom of Caloxa which was a medieval-like state, not that different from Melusine or its neighbors.

Kay Brightmore, Margrave of Rothmerlin in Caloxa and brother-in-law to the powerful Duke of Murtagh, is the right hand of the Caloxan rebel “king”, Gerrard Hume—the son of the last true Caloxan king. Unfortunately, due to Corambis’ massive superiority in terms of wealth, manpower, magic, mobility and the “neutrality” of the “free” city of Bernatha which provides the Corambins direct access to Caloxa, the insurrection was doomed from the start.

Nevertheless, it still took three years of savage fighting before the Caloxans were finally on the verge of defeat. At that point, Gerrard tried to activate the magical engine of Summerdown Palace which was known for its great power and great evil. Disaster ensued for the remaining Caloxan leaders and only the now blind Kay survived to be captured by the powerful Corambin Duke of Glimmering, thus officially ending the rebellion.

Other characters include Corbie, a young prostitute in Bernatha with hidden magical talents, and the sixteen-year-old Julian Carey who is the nephew and heir of the Duke of Murtagh and a student at the “annemer” (normal) university of Esmer—the capital of Corambis and home of the magical “Institution” that Felix needs to reach.

FORMAT/INFO:Corambis” stands at 421 pages divided over four Parts and sixteen numbered chapters, each containing a first person narration from the three main characters in Kay, Felix and Mildmay. There is also a short Conclusion that provides a definite ending to the series, though there is room for more stories in this fabulous universe. April 7, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Corambis” via
Ace. Jacket illustration provided by Judy York.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: There are two threads in “Corambis”, each possessing a very different tone. The Caloxan one, which is narrated by Kay, is a tale of war, intrigue and high society maneuverings that recounts Kay’s saga from the Summerdown massacre to his days as a blind prisoner, to his reprieve at the hands of his powerful brother-in-law (the Duke of Murtagh), and so on.

The other thread follows Felix and Mildmay as they live day-to-day, basically on Mildmay's skills at cards, and meet the humbler members of Corambin society. Stopping in Bernatha for Mildmay's nasty pulmonary sickness to pass, Felix discovers that he needs to learn how to survive on his own and take care of his younger brother. Luckily, Corbie helps him in return for “magic” lessons and in Bernatha, everything is for sale. Later of course, the threads converge, though in ways that are both expected and unexpected...

If you’ve read the other Labyrinth novels, then you should already be familiar with the distinctive narrative voices of Mildmay and Felix, which Ms. Monette once again gets pitch-perfect. Kay though, is also very convincing as a bitter but essentially honest and straightforward nobleman and soldier that chose to follow his liege lord at whatever cost. The difference of attitudes between the essentially “medieval” Caloxans, and the “modern” Corambins is perfectly illustrated in a tirade by Kay about the distinction between “margraves” and “dukes”.

Of course modern does not mean enlightened, so prejudice against homosexuality (“violet”) is prevalent in Bernatha and Corambis proper, while women are supposed to know their places, as illustrated by the separate and unequal schools they are required to attend, being unable to inherit directly, and so on...

Corambis” is less dark than the previous Labyrinth novels, and while there is still some explicit sexual content of various kinds, I felt that the rawness of the earlier books was more polished here, though no less powerful. Still, “Corambis” is not for the squeamish and easily offended.

There is a lot more happening in “Corambis” that I could write about, but I will leave it to the reader to discover the many wonders hidden within the book's pages. In summary, “Corambis” is a perfect ending to Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, and I can’t recommend the book enough...

NOTE: Outside of some dream activity, including visits with Thamuris, the only tenuous connection between the first three Labyrinth volumes and “Corambis” is the fact that Felix was presented as “Caloxan” by Malkar at the beginning of the series. So “Corambis” stands well on its own and could be a great entry point to anyone not familiar with Ms. Monette’s work. Of course, the main events of the previous books are alluded to in one way or another, so reading “Corambis” will reveal more of that main story. But if you think you do not have the patience to read all four novels, then read “Corambis” first, be thoroughly impressed, and then go back to the beginning :)

6 comments:

Mishel said...

I think I'll have to go pick up Mélusine 8)

Liviu said...

If you pick up Melusine make sure you are ready to get The Virtu if you like Felix and Mildmay's adventures, since Melusine is just half a story :)

RobB said...

I only have the fourth book (generously sent to me from Ace for review) and I thought it would be tied strongly into the first three. Your review; however, put the book back on the To Read pile and off of the "it's a series book where I haven't read any others so I'll put it aside" pile.

Also, Sarah Monette has a terrific post on her LiveJournal about the whole "series" label. Very honest and also helped to convince me to pick up the book.

Liviu said...

As mentioned in the review, I was very surprised by the setting/structure of this book - standalone and 4 bk series ending - but it works and Corambis will give you a taste of the rest the series; stylistically it's probably the best, showing the growth of Ms. Monette as a writer.

The downside of reading this first is that you will know the essential events of the previous three books which are alluded though not crucial for this one.

oceruleanskies said...

Great review. Just finished Corambis two days ago. I tried to not read it too fast (bought it four days ago), since this novel ends this great series, and so, no more of the protagonists of the story after this one. Pity!! Pity!!
But, from Mélusine, to the Virtu, to The Mirador and lastly Corambis, here ye, here ye, read them!!!

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words about the review; the sad part is that according to Ms. Monette post linked in Rob's comment above, she was not offered another contract by Ace, so now she need to find another publisher.

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