Melusine Mass Market Paperback – 27 Jun 2006
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Our first protagonist is Felix Harrowgate, a wizard whose efforts in getting himself to the top of society is destroyed when his past as a teenage prostitute is revealed. What follows is a descent into madness and a fall from grace.
Felix shares the first person narrative with Mildmay the Fox, a renowned thief who gets pulled into intrigues he doesn't understand.
The premise and lushness of the ideas on offer here pulled me in and the first few chapters made me look forward to something wonderful. However, the promise of the early parts of the book was not fulfilled for me and for various reasons.
Firstly, the story: it didn't go anywhere. Characters and subplots are introduced that made me think they would play some part in the narrative, only to be written out or resolved out of nowhere. Felix is a madhouse for pages and pages, an interlude which could have been more ruthlessly redacted as once we understand the depths of his traumatised mind we make no progress.
Another thing is the language. We are treated to beautiful, fantastical place names but with no idea of where they are or their relevance to the story it just becomes a confused jumble of jargon. In the same vein, we discover the lower classes use a base-seven counting system, using groups of seven called septads instead of the usual ten to count (eg. A septad and five instead of 12). And Mildmay reminds us of this at every turn. Walls a septad foot high, septad of years ago, when he had less than two septads of age... and it really is as annoying as that. Instead of giving us an idea of this, we are bashed over the head with it every page or so.
I didn't end up finishing Mélusine and I'm glad I borrowed it from the Kindle lending library for free. There is some truly inspired world building here, but the story itself never takes off enough to be truly engaging.
Told from the perspective of two very different characters, the narrative reflecting (often humorously) their opposing circumstances, it is not a typical fantasy fiction. First of all, neither character is thrust at the reader as immediately likeable or vice versa; they're both flawed enough to remain interesting and entertaining. The world isn't introduced in bombardments of politics and history - you're flung in at the deep end, which though confusing initially is quick to make an impression and means that Monette doesn't have to toil through page after page of tedious explanation later on. We're nicely spoon-fed bits and pieces as we need it so that the plot development doesn't suffer.
It's the relationship between the two main characters, Felix and Mildmay that keeps the book so fresh though. Far from conventional but a pleasure nonetheless.
There are two viewpoint characters, an effeminate mage who is a former prostitute and a street-wise cat-burglar whose manner of speech isn't too affected to be unbelievable even if the conspicuous repetition of the word "septad" for "seven" is annoying and they are both a little cliched and foreseeable in their actions. So, beyond some conservative character-presentation there is a well-realised city-state with a seeming wealth of history behind it (well brought out even with only passing reference to characters, legends and events in the city's past).
The fall into madness of one of these characters is handled very well though there comes a moment when one wonders whether the writer had trouble deciding how to use a madman as the narrator of events meant to hasten the overall plot. These hesitations come off as a bit tedious, especially in the second half when the action transforms into a roadtrip and the most interesting things the characters think about for almost a hundred pages are whether or not they can find food and an inn, or if they have to steal things, again, for far too many times. The only thing offered as a reason for this prolonged plodding is an event the two protagonists have to stage, described as very meaningful, but using the madman as the one who has both the necessary information to explain this event and at the same time no means to offer a coherent explication of it makes the whole event meaningless. In the end it is passed over rather quickly. After this, for the rest of the trip we get a sea voyage and a prolonged descent into variations upon the same theme in the closed quarters of a ship's hold: how can the other guy not make the other guy go more mad. They get nowhere, the same chain of thought is repeated over and over again. Yadha yadha. At least this reader was left with a feeling of utter boredom. The final ending does pick up a little and there are some nice embedded stories.