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Melusine by Sarah Monette

Why I picked it up: I bought the first three books in this series in a used book store while on vacation more than three years ago. They've languished on my shelf ever since, and they are my first books read for project "Read the Books We Have Instead of Buying New Ones." Also, I was in the mood for some gritty fantasy with burglars, big cities, a stratified society, and big magic.

Review in a nutshell: Engaging read with strong characters and a nice portrayal of friendship and loyalty under adverse circumstances. Not perfect in terms of world building, but still good enough that I thoroughly enjoyed it and will most certainly read the other books
Goodreads rating: 3/5


There are three different facets of this book that need addressing.

Character:
The two viewpoint characters, Mildmay and Felix, were both clearly drawn with distinct voices. Mildmay the cat burglar was especially fun to read. Felix was less fun, mostly because he spends most of the novel being driven insane by the magic that was worked through him against his will. That being said, Felix's sections were disturbing in a way that inspired empathy.

And while those two characters were very strong, I didn't feel like any of the other side characters really grabbed me, and as a lover of side characters, I was disappointed by this. One character that really should have grabbed me and didn't was Shannon, Felix's lover. Though we see him through Felix's eyes before he's driven mad, I never really got a sense of who he was, and because one of the other reasons I picked up this book is that I remembered one of the protagonists was gay, and so having the gay character's lover be so underdeveloped was a bit of a let down. But then again, Mildmay's girl Ginerva isn't terribly well developed either.

I also really wanted more about Malkar. He's a horrible person and the catalyst for the entire adventure, and within the first fifty pages of the book he'd bolted to the top of my "I hate you and there is nothing you can do to redeem yourself" list, which isn't a very long list of fictional characters. I think what I'm trying to say is that because we don't get much background about Malkar and Felix and their past before we're narratively required to hate Malkar, and as his actions drive the plot forward, not having any context for why he would do what he did was frustrating. (spoiler alert that's not really a spoiler, but more of a trigger warning: Malkar rapes Felix, and we get to be in Felix's head while it happens. It's not exploitatively graphic, but it's still rough).

World building
This is one of the places where this book is lacking. I could FEEL a really interesting world lurking in here. The city of Melusine was well described, and I feel like I could imagine the Mirador and the Lower City and the graveyard of Boneprince really well. It was when the story expanded beyond just the city that I got frustrated. I'm usually pretty good at putting together history and geography of places by paying attention. I AM a lifelong reader of fantasy, after all. Even when there's not map, I know what clues to look for. So the fact that I still can't quite tell whether Melusine is the capital of an entire kingdom, the seat of government for a duchy or some portion of a larger political entity or WHAT drove me up a wall. We know there are other cities. We know there are other types of wizards with conflicting ideas, some of whom post a threat to Melusine and the Mirador, some of whom are allies, but exactly how all of this shook out was never clear. I know the author wanted to avoid info-dumping, but the thing was, when she did give a bit of backstory for a place that was important, like Mildmay's brief history of the Boneprince, it was engaging and well done. I just wanted her to do that for the structure of the world at large.

The other thing this book does that made me sigh a bit is use naming conventions that are heavily rooted in European history without any explanation of how those conventions apply in the universe of the book. Example: the last names ruling families of Melusine all sound Roman, and the characters follow Roman conventions (at least I'm pretty sure that's what they are) when thinking about entire families vs. individuals, and there are saints and cathedrals, but only very thin references to structured religion to go along with them.

There were other things I wanted to know more about - obviously wizards are important to the structure of the society, what with them having an honored place at the Mirador, and the way characters talk about other schools of magic, and obviously necromancy exists, but I had only a vague idea of what was possible and what wasn't, so it made some sections (I'm thinking the part with the maze and the ghosts) lack the weight they needed because I didn't get HOW this event or use of magic fit in with what was normal.

Storytelling

The story is a bit jumpy at times. The first half of the book is definitely better. Felix getting committed to the asylum because of his "crime" of breaking the Virtu, Mildmay doing the job for Ginerva and ending up in the Boneprince... all of that moved. Once both of them get outside the city and Felix decides he has to trek across a continent to find the people who will help him regain his sanity and Mildmay goes with him... that part is where it started jumping around. I feel like that section went from adventure to adventure without a lot of rhyme or reason. I mean, they stumble upon this ruin of a city we've really never heard mentioned before, and suddenly Felix has to help all of these ghosts pass over, and that was creepy, but it was also just... hanging out there, not really tied in to the rest of the story, except as a demonstration of what the madness is doing to Felix and how Mildmay reacts to the supernatural.

Then, there are smugglers, and a shipwreck, and a society of people who look like Felix and Mildmay and know their mom... and all of this moves pretty briskly, but it felt like too much that was important was glossed over.

But this was a first novel. And so I'm more than willing to give the series time to develop because when it's good, this novel is exactly what I like about this kind of fantasy: dark and gritty and creepy, but still very human.

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August 2014

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