"The most important thing about magic is the metaphors we use to understand it, and a metaphor that is wrong is a metaphor that doesn't work. No wizard who successfully performs any bit of magic can possibly be using a wrong metaphor. There are bad metaphors, dangerous metaphors, destructive metaphors -- but no wrong metaphors. Thaumaturgical theory is about manipulating our metaphors and, ideally, making sure that the metaphors we use are good ones."
"... then what is magic?"
And all I could do was shrug and tell him the truth: "Nobody knows." (p. 302)
Corambis is the long-awaited conclusion to Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths tetralogy, and it surprised me by the threads that it tied up and the threads left a-tangle. Don't get me wrong: I loved the book, was captivated by the emotional truth of the protagonists' interactions, and would like to read a great deal more about the new characters (especially Kay, Vanessa and the Duke of Murtagh) introduced herein. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I believe it may have had more to do with the White-Eyed Lady, with Mildmay's sense of direction, with librarians harrowing Hell ...
This novel feels very distant from the preceding three, and I don't just mean geographically, although Corambis (far to the north of Melusine and considerably more technologically -- though not necessarily socially -- advanced) is the terminus of a long journey for Felix and Mildmay. Corambis is in the immediate aftermath of a bloody civil war: Prince Gerrard is dead with six of his men, slain by an Engine at the heart of a labyrinth, and Kay Brightmore, sole survivor of that incident, pays penance chained to the dead man's bier. Meanwhile, there is considerable interest in restarting another great engine, the Clock of Eclipses, and Felix is drawn into the machinations of Corambin magic and science.
Felix is also trying to make peace -- no, more, to achieve a balance -- with his half-brother Mildmay, who's followed him into exile and left all that he knows behind him. Both Felix and Mildmay (who are complex and intriguingly broken characters) have a lesson or two to unlearn, and it seems to me that this element of the plot takes precedence over all others: it's more immediate than the workings of the engine under Summerdown, than the studies of the fledgling archaeologists at the Mammothium and how they interknit with noirant and clairant magic, than the singing tension between Kay Brightmore and, well, pretty much everyone (and everything) else.
It's fascinating to see how Felix finally stops equating sex and love, how Mildmay stops equating sex and loss, how the unresolved and unrequited feelings between them do finally resolve. (Though actually, I could have done with more of the latter than a simple "I don't want him any more, not like that". The catalyst is pretty plain but the acknowledgment seems flimsy.)
I still love Mildmay's voice -- vivid images, utter irreverance, sharp observations and rather less self-pity. Felix is considerably less splintery in Corambis: there's a definite sense of healing, and a recognition of the character trait that makes him hurt those around him. As mentioned above, I very much like Kay (his narrative's dry, quite Shakespearian with its dropped pronouns and prepositions, and his fierce indomitable temper) and I like the Duke of Murtagh, who is sly and sleek and urbane. I like the way that, with the threefold narrative thread -- Felix, Mildmay, Kay -- we're never wholly sure who knows about what. (Does Murtagh know that Kay ...?)
And I am so glad that Monette resisted the urge (as recounted on her blog) to dole out happy endings all round: at the end of the novel, the protagonists are in the right place for new beginnings, but romance (or sheer lust) would be trite and ... wrong.
Not what I expected and I'm not yet sure if this feels conclusive or overly open an ending: but I enjoyed it vastly and am looking forward to sitting down and rereading all four novels, one after the other, to get the true shape.
Deleted scenes from Corambis