No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, November 08, 2007

#71: The Virtu -- Sarah Monette

What hooked me into reading this more or less as soon as it arrived in the post was the prospect of seeing Felix (who spent most of Mélusine mad) in a state of sanity. Kethe's blessing (as Mildmay would say): what you asked for but not what you wanted. Felix is sharp enough to cut diamond, arrogant, insensitive and vain, a very Romantic hero, very Byronic and intrinsically, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.

Actually I rather like him. Though not nearly as much as he likes himself.

I've read elsewhere that Mélusine and The Virtu were originally conceived as a single novel: if so, the structure (and the rather episodic feel of Mélusine) make much more sense. The structure of The Virtu, and the physical journey that Felix and Mildmay undertake, is a mirror of the previous novel -- though both men are changed by what they've experienced, the ordeals they've undergone, and by Mildmay's solution to the situation he left behind in the city of Mélusine. (A solution that could hardly be signalled more strongly in the earlier book, but still surprises, because Mildmay, even as narrator, isn't in the habit of telling anyone more than a quarter of what he thinks.)

As before, the most fascinating aspect of the plot is the interaction between the two. There's Felix's growing respect for Mildmay ("he'd simply taken a short-cut through the conversation I'd anticipated having and reached the finish line ahead of me. I'd known he was much smarter than he seemed, but I hadn't appreciated before how quick he was"). There's Mildmay's need to hold onto, stay with Felix (quite different from the cult of Felix he observes in others, which gives us an external yardstick for Felix's charisma). There are all the things they have in common (both damaged by physical and psychological abuse when younger, but Felix is far readier to blame those responsible for the way he is, while Mildmay internalises, thinks he deserved everything, and seldom makes explicit connection between his past and his character), and all the ways in which they complement one another (Felix has little sense of direction; Mildmay doesn't get lost, even in mazes).

And it's hard not to like a character named Mehitabel, even if she speaks normally (formally, even) and is not given to saying wotthehell*. For one thing, she calls Felix 'sunshine' and completely fails to fall under his spell. Perhaps one day she will give him the resounding slap he deserves. Go Mehitabel!

One thing that really did strike me about this novel -- though I hadn't consciously made the connection with Mélusine -- was how well it fits the 'fantasy of manners' subgenre, as originally suggested by Don Keller long long ago in a galaxy far far away NYRSF. (Now butterfly-me has spent a while googling the original article: no joy, but there are good write-ups of a couple of Readercon panels.) Urban setting? Yep, once they get back to Mélusine. Elaborate social structure? Yes, and then some. (Thrown into relief by Felix and Mildmay coming from very different levels of said structure.) Protagonists pitted against their peers? More so than against any external Blight, for sure. "Duels may be fought," says Wikipedia, "but the chief weapons are wit and intrigue." Spot on. (I found myself thinking about fantasy tropes that aren't featured here, and one of those is swordplay: neither protagonist uses, nor wishes to use, a sword. Bernard uses a sword, but even Mildmay thinks he's a thug.)

Which is not to say there's no plot. I am intrigued by several elements of same: the mazes and labyrinths that recur, and are key; the Sibylline, a local variant of the Tarot with some extra cards and a Major Arcana that's congruent but distinctly not ours; obligations, d'âme and du sang, and how they might be broken; memory and forgetfulness, which is all I'm saying about the ending.

Oh, there's a very definite ending to one arc of the story -- and, I thought but was mistaken, to another arc (because I thought something was not forgivable, but underestimated a bond) -- there are elements that are left ready to be drawn back into the weave, in the third or even fourth book of the series. And there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no happy endings. Just broken people, afraid of but craving intimacy, afraid of what's broken and wanting to mend it.

*yesterday sceptres and crowns
fried oysters and velvet gowns
and today i herd with bums
but wotthehell wotthehell

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