Sarah Monette’s Mélusine and The Virtu are not without flaws, but are so vivid and engrossing that I didn’t notice until after I’d finished reading—and even then, they took up a lot of space in my mind, as happens only with works that really resonate for me. They are not for everyone, but I highly recommend them to those not dissuaded by the description below.
The first thing that needs describing about these books, and I would argue the most important thing, is their narrative voices. They’re told from two alternating first-person points of view, and if you don’t like at least one of them, I’d bet money you won’t like the books. I was irrevocably caught by Mélusine‘s prologue, which is told by Mildmay, a member of Mélusine’s Lower City. Since the narrative voices are so central, and since I thought the prologue was really cool, I’m going to indulge myself by quoting it in full (it’s only two pages):
This is the worst story I know about hocuses. And it’s true.
Four Great Septads ago, back in the reign of Claudius Cordelius, there was a hocus named Porphyria Levant. The hocuses back then had this thing they could do, called the binding-by-forms, the obligation d’âme. It happened between a hocus and an annemer, an ordinary person, and it was like an oath of loyalty, only a septad times more. The hocus promised to protect the annemer from everything, including kings and other hocuses and basically anybody else who had an interest. The annemer promised to be the hocus’s servant and do what they said and no backchat, neither. And they renounced their family and all their other connections, so it was like the only thing in the world that mattered to them was the hocus. And then there was a spell to stick it in place and make sure, you know, that nobody tried to back out after it was too late.
You can see the problem, right? Most half-bright folks can. But some hocuses were so powerful and so nasty that I guess it seemed like it was better to go ahead and do the obligation d’âme with a hocus you sort of trusted than to go wandering around waiting for a different hocus to get the drop on you.
So there was Porphyria Levant. And there was Silas Altamont. Silas Altamont was annemer, a guy who’d been the favorite of Lord Creon Malvinius, and then when Lord Creon got married, Silas Altamont was out on his ear, and scared shitless of Lord Creon’s wife, who was way better connected than him, and was rumored to have three or four hocuses on her string to boot. And she was poison-green with jealousy, because she loved Lord Creon like a mad thing, and everybody knew he didn’t give a rat’s ass about her. So Silas Altamont goes to Porphyria Levant—who was powerful enough to protect him from Lisette Malvinia, no matter who she had running her errands—and begs Porphyria Levant to do the obligation d’âme. And Porphyria Levant smiles and says okay.
Now, the thing about the binding-by-forms, the way my friend Zephyr explained it to me, is that it lets the hocus make you do what they want. Except for kill yourself. They can’t make you do that. But what Porphyria Levant tells Silas Altamont to do is fuck her. I’ve heard it different ways. Some people say Silas Altamont was beautiful as daylight, and Porphyria Levant had been hot for him for indictions. Some say Porphyria Levant didn’t know he was molly, thought he was janus and wouldn’t mind. And some say—and I got to admit, this is what I think—that she knew he was molly and that was why she did it. There are other stories about Porphyria Levant, and it’s the kind of thing she would do.
Anyway, there’s Silas Altamont. He’s molly, and he’s still in love with Creon Malvinius, but he has to do what the obligation d’âme says, and it says, You got to fuck Porphyria Levant and make her happy. And after a while he goes to her and says, “I can’t stand this no more, please, let me stop or I’m going to go out and slit my wrists.”
And Porphyria Levant says, “Silas,” and smiles her little smile, “I forbid you to kill yourself.”
That’s what hocuses are like, and that’s why, if you live in the Lower City of Mélusine, you keep one eye on the Mirador all the time, same way you would with a swamp adder. It’s just common sense.
If you don’t like that, probably you don’t need to bother with the rest of this review, because of the nature of the other point of view. Felix Harrowgate is a wizard of the Mirador and therefore an aristocrat of Mélusine, but more importantly for purposes of his narration, is (a) an arrogant bastard, and (b) sent into a tailspin on his third page and driven crazy by the end of the chapter. The opening first left me wondering why he reacted so strongly there on page three, and then feeling bad for him, but in a fairly abstract way, because I hadn’t had time to build up much of a connection. [*] And then when he’s not mad, he’s an arrogant bastard. All this makes his viewpoint rather less likely to draw the reader in. (I seem to have a higher tolerance for first-person bastards than many, somewhat to my surprise.)
[*] I used Felix as a jumping-off point for a virtual con panel on “Risky Narrative Strategies” (SPOILERS in comments to that post).
Felix is driven crazy when his former master uses him to break the Virtu, a magical artifact that holds the wizards of the Mirador together and makes them a force that can resist the two large political powers to either side of Mélusine. Mildmay is a cat burglar who takes a job that eventually leads him to cross paths with Felix.
This is as good a place as any to talk about the structure of the books, though I have more to say about the voices. Mélusine and The Virtu are basically one novel divided in two because of length, with a story shaped like a U. Many things from the first part of the novel (the left-hand side of the U) are picked up again or paralleled later (on the right-hand side), after something like an interlude in the middle that spans the end of the first book and the beginning of the second. (An important interlude, I should say, just not as immediately concerned with the events that take place on either side.) Which is a long and possibly too-abstract way of saying that Mélusine does not stand alone.
Another thing about the structure is that I go back and forth as to whether the pacing could have been quicker. When I look at any particular incident, I see that it contributes something to the story; and yet I still have the general feeling that the story could have moved faster, particularly in the middle, that book-spanning bottom of the U.
Which leads me back to the narrative voices, by way of the characters. This is a fundamentally character-driven story, and so most of the time, what any particular incident is contributing is a further development of Mildmay, Felix, or their relationship. I think this is done brilliantly, with lots of depth and complexity and difficulties. But the points of view are really tight, which is one of the reasons why I think the narrative voices are the most important things about these books: if you don’t like them, there’s no getting away from it.
The tightness of the points of view also has its good and bad effects on the story. Personally, a really consistent and distinctive point of view is one of my favorite things, so that alone was a plus for me. But unless a first-person narrator is consciously telling a tale for an unfamiliar audience, first-person does require the reader to do some more work to figure out what’s going on. For me, that translated to difficulty understanding Mélusine’s history (especially since the Mirador and the Lower City use different calendar systems). On my re-read, I deliberately flagged everything that had a date or time frame, and then I was able to piece it together fairly easily: but I had to consciously pay attention to it. Your tolerance for complexity may vary. And, of course, there are some things that first-person narrators just don’t know, so that I found myself in the peculiar position of wanting the villain to make a big motivation-baring speech at the end. I see now why writers are tempted by it—how else to get that information out there?
As my comments about Mélusine’s history may have suggested, the world is as complex as the characters: multiple societies, religions live and dead, past coups and dynastic changes, competing schools of wizarding philosophy/religion (if it’s got something called “heresy” for which people may be burned, I think that makes it more a religion than not), towers, labyrinths, ghouls, the Kalliphorne, divinations . . . all of which are really cool. (Though I am slightly uncomfortable with the role divination plays in the emotional resolution of The Virtu, because it’s the kind of thing I am sensitive about.) Even when I wasn’t quite sure I understood some of the worldbuilding details, I was fascinated.
Mélusine and The Virtu tell a complete story, but there will be two more books in the series. The third, The Mirador, will be out in early August. Judging by the sample chapters on the author’s website, two years on there’s both new business and old to be dealt with. I can’t wait.