Review of Mélusine by Sarah Monette
by Sarah Monette
Mélusine suffers from two narrators: Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox. I say “suffers” because Monette switches between the two perspectives more frequently than Bill Nye drops mad science truth. Each chapter is about thirty or fifty pages in this paperback edition, but perspective can happen as often as once every page. Sometimes the characters barely get a few paragraphs in before Monette switches to the other narrator. Consequently, instead of feeling like I’m watching two separate stories develop and wondering how they will come together, I feel like I’m watching really badly edited shaky-cam footage from two separate camera crews.
Neither of these narrators particularly captured my interest or sympathies. Felix is a wizard. Wizards are cool, right? Except that, by about page 3, Felix was in major depression mode. Instead of talking to his lover about it, he flees to the sanctuary of the wizard who once abused him and raped him. The wizard abuses him and rapes him again, and Felix goes back for more, claiming that he simply “can’t help it”.
I’m given to understand that this is a realistic pattern of actions for an abuse victim to take: leave, temporarily, and then surrender to what they perceive is an inevitability. So I’m not trying to demean or diminish the horror of the abuse victim’s experience here. Rather, I take issue with the fact that, by beginning the story here, Monette makes it really difficult for me to understand and sympathize with Felix. We don’t have his backstory and his full relationship with Malkar; we don’t understand what brought him to this point. All we can do is snap hungrily at the litle crumbs Monette throws at us and hope that it’s enough to see us through until the end of the book, when she makes that part clear.
Generally, it’s a good idea to begin at the beginning of the story, which often means skipping over the boring parts in a character’s early life. Sometimes, though, a little context is necessary to keep the reader on side. I mean, Monette bothered to include a prologue that—as far as I can tell—has nothing to do with the plot in particular. That seems like pages well spent!
Oh, and Mildmay? At first his jargon annoyed me, and I suppose you should take that as a compliment for Monette’s ability to capture distinct voices for these two narrators. Gradually, his story did come to interest me, and his voice became less annoying. I suspect this happened at the same time Felix started going mad and his sections became sparser and less interesting. (Madness from a first-person perspective is hard to do effectively.) Mildmay’s sanity, in contrast, seemed to at least offer the prospect of moving this story forward.
Mélusine is named after the city in which the first half of the book takes place. The book isn’t really about the city, though. Monette has clearly created an interesting world populated by a vast and diverse cast of cultures, not to mention a number of competing schools of magic that all view each other with suspicion of the taint of heresy. She doesn’t spend much time explaining these various schools, though, and while I appreciate the dedication to keeping exposition to a minimum, there’s something to be said for fleshing out a world beyond dropping an unfamiliar name here and there. There is a fine line between exposition and description, where dropping too much of the one leads to forgetting too much of the other.
Maybe it’s too much for me to expect a book titled after a city to be about that city. Mélusine is more about how Felix and Mildmay meet, the secret they discover that brings them together, and then the journey they take to uncover Felix’s past. Unfortunately, that journey is boring. There are no monsters to slay, no detours, no quests. They stumble across another empire, book passage on a ship, get shipwrecked, and wind up … exactly where they wanted to be!
This entire book feels like filler, like the setup for the real story. In the first act, Felix’s master uses Felix’s bound power to break the Virtu, a magical MacGuffin that allows the wizards of Mélusine to focus their spells more effectively. This is obviously a Big Deal, a kind of magical terrorist act. The fallout from this act, however, remains unclear and unresolved. We don’t know if Felix is supposed to play a role in repairing the Virtu. We don’t know if Felix will ever confront his former master and exact revenge. All we know is that Felix and Mildmay are together, and Felix isn’t exactly mad any more (maybe).
A lot of stuff seems like it happens in this book, but make no mistake: nothing happens. This is a book whose plot consists of dragging two characters across a world that is poorly-described while switching viewpoints faster than a cat can regret jumping into a bathtub.
There is a good story lurking somewhere in here, with characters who can do it justice. But it needs more exposition, more patience with characterization, and less patience with plotting. Mélusine really just needs to breathe. It doesn’t do that, and that makes it very difficult for me to praise.