10 April 2009

The Virtu (Sarah Monette)

After reading (and loving) Mélusine, the first book in Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series, I could not help but pick up the sequel - The Virtu.
Felix Harrowgate was a dashing and powerful wizard until his former master wrenched Felix's magic from him and used it to shatter the Virtu -the orb that is the keystone for the protections and magic of the wizards of the city. Felix has painfully clawed his way back to sanity, and his only chance to reclaim the life he once knew is to repair the seemingly irreparable - to restore the Virtu. Mildmay the Fox was an assassin and a cat-burglar - until a curse caught up with him and his life changed forever. Haunted by death, his leg damaged by the curse that should have killed him, he does not know what awaits him in Mélusin, but for good or ill, his fate is tied to Felix's, by blood...and by magic. On their journey, Felix and Mildmay will encounter friends and enemies old and new, vengeful spirits and ancient godesses. They will uncover secrets better left buried. But nothing can prepare them for what awaits their return: Felix's former master, the cruel and decadent wizard Malker Gennadion...

I finished reading the book this morning and have attempted to cobble together a few of my wayward thoughts. Where to start? Firstly, did the book work for me? As with Mélusine, the answer is (again) a resounding YES! (Parts of me wish I had discovered this series earlier, but parts of me are rapt that I am discovering it for the first time.)

At its heart The Virtu, like Mélusine, is the story of Felix and his brother Mildmay... But more than that, it is the story of their developing relationship...and Felix's growth. Yes there is a plot, and yes it weaves lightly through the book, but if you're looking for a book seeped in plot..this isn't it. The plot, which ebbs and flows, is...almost an afterthought in places (although perhaps 'afterthought' it too harsh a word). For me, the ebbs and flows, allow the reader to assimilate the rich emotions that come pouring off the page and appreciate the author's deft hand with language and the worldbuilding. So, if you want a book that is character-driven, wrapped up in a very finely spun-out plot that takes second fiddle (but not in a bad way IMO) to the characters, then this is the book for you *grin*
Plot threads that were left hanging in Mélusine are tied up in The Virtu; the fate of characters that were left behind when Felix and Mildmay began their trek across the Empire of Kekropia is discovered and we are introduced to to the mysterious and multi-talented Miss Mehitabel Parr....who is far more than she seems IMO *grin*

Like Mélusine, The Virtu is written in the first person, with the reader again moving between the POV of the two main (male) protagonists - Mildmay and Felix. Their voices remains strong and distinctive and the characters stay true to the versions we met in Mélusine. Mildmay is still who and what he is. Felix is complex, and contradictory...and flawed.
I know it was my idea and everything, but the longer I thought about it, the more I couldn't believe we'd made it across the Grasslands once, and crossing it again felt like walking back into a lion's den, only this time with a slide trombone.

The author makes full use of her PhD in English Literature - there were a number of words I very rarely see...and I like that. I am explanding my knowlesge of the English language as well reading an amazing story. I found the language in this book to be....like a symphony I guess. It just...fit.

The crux of this book is the developing relationship between Felix and Mildmay. Two diametrically opposite, isolated individuals, both starved but yet craving affection, circling around each other in ever decreasing circles...wanting to connect but at the same time fighting the vunerability that comes with it. For them, love is...anathema.
It occurred to me that it said something very unpleasant about both of us that we saw concern and kindness as attacks.

Their relationship slowly develops throughout the book, as both Felix and Mildmay learn about each other. And the steps they take in this dance are a joy to behold....discovering what lies beneath the facade that each portrays...and yet a source of heartbreak. Why? Because Felix believes (and acts as though) he cannot change, cannot be other that what he was created to be.
'I've always been like this. It's not you...That's the important thing. It's not your fault. It's me. And I'd promise to change, except that it would be a lie.'
He is a product of Malkar Gennadion....he is what Malkar made him. However, within him lies the capacity to grow...if you'll excuse the phrase...beyond his programming.
Realised...that my treatment of Mildmay since we had come on board the White Otter would not have given any observer the impression that I regarded him as other that a hired thug. Malkar had placed strigent restrictions on my behavior, lest I disgrace him, but it was a new and appalling idea that my attitude toward another person could cause other people to disdain him.
...and I caught myself again and again watching Mildmay, trying to make sense of who he was, trying to sort my idea of him out into order and coherence. Trying to find an understanding that would help me not hurt him again.
Mildmay is under no illusions as to Felix's true nature:
'You like jealously. You like knowing people want you...It's like you got to have everybody's heart and if they don't give it, you rip it out and watch it bleed.
And yet he still makes himself vunerable:
He was all I had any more, the only person in the world who cared about me even a little - the only person left that I...loved.
And then halfway through the book the power balance changes. By choice, yes, but all choices have consequences. And Felix isn't above using (and abusing) what is his when required. Only after, does he realize that such actions may irreconciably break what has been forged between him and his brother...
So, yes, Felix is still a love/hate character...and yes I still love him. He travels a long way in this book, but he still has such a long way to go.
The Vitu contains little of Mélusine's back story, with the author (rightly or wrongly) assuming high memory retention. So, yes, I did get a little confused with regard to who certain characters were...but there were enough subtle hints to eventually pick it up. I actually appreciated the compliment; numerous books provide back story, and having to wade through facts that I already know is kind of frustrating. However, the world-building is so complex in this series that if you a) get frustrated when You don't know who somebody is, or b) have a bad memory for characters and plot points, be warned. For some reason, rather than getting fixated on knowing everything (which is very me), I surrended to the story and assumed that eventually I would work out who a certain character was...and I did....eventually *grin*
The characters all seem to have incredibly complex names...and being me I had to sound them out so that I didn't get thrown out of the story when their were menyoned. I probably haven't been prouncing them correctly - I remember being corrected by a school friend over how I prounced characters' the LOTR names... In the end, you prounouce the name how you want (although please don't dob me in to any LOTR fanatics for saying that!).
There is one paragraph, one Page 87 of my copy of The Virtu, that completely blew me away. I can't include it in its entirety, but...let's just say that Felix comes to a realisation about Mildmay that was rather...shocking. I am very interested to see where the author goes with this...
I will admit to still being lost with regard to the various states and the calenderical system, but as with remembering the characters, I just placed myself in the author's hands and let myself be swept away by the rich emotion pouring from the pages.
So, will I read the third book (The Mirador)? Definitely! This is one series that I will definitely read again and again. So much so that I am going to buy the books...well, I'm going to buy the first and third books. For some reason, the second book isn't available in paperback. I must investigate! And aren't the cover just gorgeous (AND relevant)?
Updated to add: Apologies for the lack of paragraph spacing. I'm having....issues!


  1. "'You like jealously. You like knowing people want you...It's like you got to have everybody's heart and if they don't give it, you rip it out and watch it bleed."
    Gah! It's lines like this that just take my breath away. Mildmay's unrelenting honesty, especially about Felix, get to me every time.

    Awesome review! I think you're so right about the character-driven vs plot driven. I might even add that I think that it is more world-driven than plot-driven. There are not many books where the world is such a major "character."

    I'm glad that you are just discovering the books now, so that you can read them as you will, and not have to wait for any to be written/published. I'm so excited about Corambis, but my library hasn't gotten it in yet.

  2. *nods* - based on the first book, I think I have to agree with Renee - Melusine at least does strike me as more of a world-driven than a character-driven book.

    The Virtu does sound intriguing, kechara, so I do think I'll read it, but I might leave it a while before I try picking it up.

    Thanks for the in-depth review - it was great to hear your thoughts!

  3. Oh wow, Orannia. Another great review about this series. I now need to read this book with an absolute passion.

    BTW, you are mean for the tease about page 87 because it's going to take me a while to actually find a copy of the book where I live... if I can, that is. :)

  4. I might even add that I think that it is more world-driven than plot-driven.

    *nods* Renee & Starfire - I can see where you both are coming from..iit's an incredibly complex world :) I never thought of a book as being world-driven before...you can learn a new thing ever day :)

    And thank you all for your comments *blushes* I do have a confession - I was up till 11 PM yesterday writing the review and then attempting to fix the formatting. A reviewer I am not :)

    Kris - I would like to introduce you to GoodBooksNZ (http://www.goodbooksnz.co.nz). They don't have the range of..say...Amazon, but they ship anywhere in the world, postage if FREE (yes, free), the books are sold as wholesale prices....AND the proceeds go to Oxfam. Unfortunately, The Virtu seems to be out-of-print, which is insane! Am investigating and will keep you posted :)

    And I know I am mean about Page 87, but it is kind of a spoilerish paragraph...sorry!

  5. Excellent review, Orannia! You picked some of my favorite quotes from this one, too. This is my favorite book in the series because it is such a great character study of two conflicted individuals. And the "shocking" part from page 87 kept things interesting too. ;)

    You'll find out more about Mehitabel in the next book. I can't wait to read Corambis - I got it but I'm trying to make myself finish the book I'd started first.

  6. Just to clarify: I think that the series mainly character (and the character would be Felix) driven, but the world seems more prominent than plot, almost equal in importance with character.

    BTW, Sarah Monette is doing that Q & A series on her blog right now (though I'm afraid to read any spoilers for Corambis.) The last time she did it it was excellent! I stll can't believe she doesn't have a writing contract anymore. (Her publisher didn't offer her a new one. :-( )

  7. Thank you Kristen. Yeah...weirdly, I would have thought that Page 87 paragraph might have squicked me out completely...but it didn't... Am wondering if this issue will reappear in later books...

    And thank you Renee for clarifying! That makes sense :) I'm gobsmacked that Sarah Monette doesn't have a writing contract any more. She's such an amazing writer! ANd thank you for the heads up about the Q&A!

  8. This series has been on my TBB list forever! First Renee, and now you!

    Also, I see you're reading Silent on the Moor. GASP. I LOVE that series! I'm still on Sanctuary.

  9. What a comprehensive and insightful review! Very well done! You've inspired me to put this on my list of books I must get to.

  10. Thank you CJ & Christine :) Sarah Monette is an amazing writer. This series has just blown me away! Luckily I still have two books to go :)

    CJ - Am really enjoying Silent on the Moor. How are you finding Silent in the Sanctuary BTW?