It has been a long time since I read Sarah Monette’s Melusine, (Doctrine of Labyrinths #1) and despite first reading it at a too-young age and semi-disliking it, it didn’t stop me from picking up the second one. The Virtu picks up directly where the first one ended, and honestly, it would probably be in the Constant Reader’s best interest to devour these in succession. There’s no compassion for your aging memory. No compass. No orientation. You’re dropped in and expected to figure things out from there and even then there aren’t many hints to go on. I think I’ve just figured out the time scale differences between an indiction and a decad. Go, team, go! I’ll even admit it wasn’t until the end of the novel that the lightbulb went on and I finally got that the Bastion and Mirador were battling wizarding schools. It’s a complicated book, but worth the time and effort. Your vocabulary will grow ten-fold.
That being said, The Virtu differs from most high-fantasy series in that it isn’t about a world-ending evil. There’s enough politics to make you dizzy, but it’s a story about people. To be even more clear, it’s a tale about abuse. Which wasn’t at all what I thought while reading. It wasn’t until I shut the book and let it sink in that I realized it—and it made everything that happened even more painful.
Essentially, in the first novel, Felix’s mind and magic were used by his past master and abuser Malkar to break the Virtu, a piece of magic that protects the wizards and their home. Driven insane by the event, Felix is saved by Mildmay, his long lost cat-burglar brother, and the two escape the city of Melusine to cure Felix’s madness.Surprise, surprise they succeed and the second novel picks up where Felix, finally recovered and sane, decides to fix the Virtu and save the Mirador’s wizards from war with the Bastion. Mildmay, on the other hand, has burned all his bridges in Melusine and needs to find a way to survive the return trip without losing the brother he loves and his life.
The two brothers grew up separated and under completely different circumstances. Felix was raised as a Pharohlight whore, addicted to a drug called phoenix, and then sold to Malkar who essentially pimped him out and manipulated him until he broke free to become a wizard of his own standing. Mildmay was raised as a kept-thief and assassin who had become disfigured after a knife fight. He’s incredibly familiar with the Lower City and its associated districts. Not only that, but he’s a down-to-earth thinker. While Felix may be the intellectual hiding his soiled past, when a problem is presented to Mildmay, he can figure it out by knowing a guy who knows a guy who knows the real story.
They’re strong characters, but they both suffer from their previous abusive pasts. They make a good team when they decide to work together, but ultimately this book isn’t about saving the world. It’s about two people living through an abusive relationship and the twisted things people to do themselves and one another when they’re too scared to lose what they have.
Despite Felix’s background, he’s truly taken the lessons he’s learnt to heart. His internal struggle to not become Malkar is unsuccessful and in his fits of rage, terror, and hate, his cruelty becomes something that defines him. He’s selfish and uncaring, ultimately concerned about his outward appearances and having his past revealed. He’s an abused person becoming exactly like his abuser. While others may ponder how that could happen—he’s been on the other side and knows the damage he’s doing to those around him—it’s a clear case of action versus thought. Felix wants to fix himself, but when he’s faced with the atrocities he’s committed, he hides it under the rug of ‘well, that’s just who I am.’ He recognizes what he does and who he has become when he’s in moments not hindered by emotion, but when he’s enraged he lashes out to become what he hates. Any attempt of change is destroyed by his age-old enemy: fear. Any attempt he has to become a better person remains in his thoughts or comes out as glib words without any action behind them.
His actions end up impacting the one person who truly loves him: Mildmay. Mildmay, who exhibits classic signs of clinical depression and might be on the point of a mental break. His depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem color everything he says, acts, and thinks. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Mildmay suddenly disappeared one day or committed suicide. He knows this about himself as well, which is probably one of the reasons he submits to the obligation d’ame, essentially making himself Felix’s slave. Mildmay hates how he looks with his scar, he feels stupid all the time, and he can’t connect with anyone due to these insecurities. It doesn’t help that even though he hates the goon stereotype people classify him with, he perpetuates it. He puts his trust and love in Felix, who doesn’t quite know what to do with it, and justifies looking out for Felix as his reasons for living. When Felix was crazy and needed a keeper, Mildmay found his purpose, but now with a sane Felix, he’s found another reason to be abused and lets it happen. He’s taken the morals beaten into him through emotional and mental abuse and embedded them into his bedrock.
While he hasn’t become twisted by it as Felix has, Mildmay still shows true love and devotion and has lessons to teach if someone would show the interest. Being betrayed one too many times has made him skittish, but he’s a storyteller and its heartbreaking to see the things he should’ve been but never will because he devalues his worth. The strange thing is, Mildmay has the inner strength to shake the co-dependency he has with Felix. During the novel’s climax when Mildmay was captured, he was under no pretenses that someone was going to save him. Felix describes it perfectly:
I had valued Mildmay over Mavortian, and it seemed that that had not been necessary. Mildmay—and I should have known it—was perfectly capable of rescuing himself.
In essence, the book is fantastic. I devoured it within days. I knew a lot going in wasn’t going to make sense and I let that wash over me. I took my time to understand the story—because between the different schools of magic and cultures, it can be difficult to find your footing. But it’s worth it, because in the end, these two people don’t resolve what they have any more at the end of the book, but it’s a good reminder that feelings like that are in for the long game. Scars like those just don’t go away. They’ll always be there. It does help that I have two more books to get through, and I supposed I’m in it for the long game too.