As I turned the final page of Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths at around 2am, I felt incredibly sad. The saga was over. I was exhausted. I’d planned to stop reading somewhere around midnight, but with less than a hundred pages left to go, there was no choice but to finish the story. Since the Dark Tower, finishing the story was and will always be more important than sleep.
In the meantime, its confession time.
I spoiled Corambis for myself. I got the book while reading The Mirador, and had to find out if Mildmay found love, if the brothers reconciled their relationship after everything that had happened, if Felix climbed out of his dark abyss of selfishness and self-loathing. I didn’t fully read Corambis when it first arrived on my doorstep—not when I had Mirador pages waiting for me, but I did skim enough to maintain my love for the characters and the world. It alleviated the terrible tension in my belly, ruined the impact of the plot, and gave me some headway to evaluate why the final book was handled the way it was. Apparently, I need processing time.
Corambis has a strange ending, but I understand why it happened the way it did. Exiled from Melusine after Felix broke Isaac Garamond’s mind for murdering Gideon, Felix and Mildmay travel to the Institution in little-known Corambis where the Corambian magicians would pass judgement on Felix’s use of power. Once again, Felix has lost everything: his faith in his magic, his lover, his home. He continues to take his anger out on Mildmay, yet when Mildmay falls deathly ill, Felix realizes he must pay the price for them to both survive. In the process, he discovers he must take better care of what he has left—and that includes Mildmay.
A steampunk world with Victorian-age values, railroads, fathoms (subways), and steam-powered paddleboats, Corambis is a far different beast than Melusine. Even with their education movement ensuring schooling for magicians of all social classes, Corambis retains backwards thinking regarding women’s rights and homosexuality, making it ripe for revolution. By removing the brothers from their home, Monette eliminates the environmental constructs that both characters cling to: Felix to his Melusinian image, and Mildmay as the worthless Lower City assassin. The two must depend on each other to navigate a foreign country and nothing brings characters closer, or lets issues emerge faster, than when you have to count on only one other person. The move was wise—staying in Melusine would’ve let wounds fester and transform the brother’s relationship into a heartbreaking, horrible spectacle fit for a Real Wives show. While the decision to remove the brothers was beneficial to the story, it also sacrifices Corambis to the fate of a stand-alone novel. Nothing of the old world remains. No adventures into the Lower City. No more relationship building with outside characters. This was frustrating, due to the fact I loved that old world so much.
Even so, Monette excels at world building and she spared no expense on Corambis. Felix, Mildmay, and a female amateur wizardess Felix takes under his wing, travel to the city of Esmer to face judgement under the Institution. There, Felix learns the obligation d’ame can be broken—but culturally, that spell is equal to one used by evil warlocks who enslaved shadow wizards. Felix, considered too dangerous, has his magic bound as punishment, even as Mildmay is finally free. But because Felix is such a smart guy, he accepts a teaching position at the Institution.
As Mildmay begins to heal and rediscover his identity, the Corambian culture steps up its game. There are bog people mummies who have knotted hair and these knots were used to enslave the evil around and inside them. The knotted-hair people are then sacrificed to destroy the evil for the good of the tribe. There are ancient mammoths, myths of labyrinths, the worship of the Lady (a loose tie-in from other myths explored in the previous books), engine magicians, and a robotic Automaton that was driven insane and destroyed everything it ever loved.
Now bound under magic, Felix learns to act like a human and right his wrongs. His dependence on Mildmay emerges, and enhances his jealousy at Mildmay for reclaiming his life. His idea of love is wrapped around acts of owning and domination, thus, by controlling Mildmay he ensures Mildmay stays with him. Felix finally stops obsessing about his image and attempts to stop using Mildmay as a tool—all of which provide sorely needed character development.
Even though Mildmay helps Felix through Felix’s problems, he does not advance as much as I’d hoped. While he does take his own advice about stopping the past from dictating the future, he transverses through depression, suicide, and repression without actually facing any of the issues head on. Milmay doesn’t mull on Mildmay—he mulls on Felix. As much as that helps us flesh out Felix, it does nothing for Mildmay’s character advancement to recognize his own worth and find a relationship outside of Felix. One sort of starts with the disgraced knight, Kay Brightmore, but it’s only a start.
Ahh, Kay Brightmore, our third POV. While it frustrated me in The Mirador, Kay Brightmore’s sections were interesting and helped solidify the upheavals in Corambis. The last surviving leader of the Caloxan rebellion trying to claim their independence from northern Corabmian invaders, the first time we meet Kay, he attempts to start an ancient engine under Summerdown—which we later learn is a Titan Clock—with his lord liege Gerard (who Kay has unresolved sexual tension with). The engine awakens, slaughters them all with its spider/octopus arms, and blinds Kay. Captured and forced to surrender, Kay confesses his sins under duress and is then chained to Gerrard’s bier like a dog and paraded as a sign of Caloxan failure. Saved by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Murtaugh, he is forced into an arranged marriage with the Lady of Grimglass. Spiritually defeated, questioning the revolution, and grieving for Gerrard, he refuses to take up the banner for the second wave of Caloxan revolutionists, but is drawn back to Summerdown—the engine which uses sacrifices to create evil intent toward an enemy. In this case, Corambis.
There’s a lot going on, and, if this had been a different book I might be spouting a different review. The plot is more of a journey where many action sequences were told from outside perspectives and somewhat ruining the rising tension. The ending happened too quickly and felt silly. Kay goes back to the engine to be a sacrifice to save his friends, but after he makes the deal, his revolution bros summon and army and within fifteen minutes the whole sacrifice conundrum is solved. Mildmay and Felix arrive too late, but it doesn’t really matter because the whole problem got solved a few pages earlier.
I suppose that was the main problem I had—the ending didn’t feel like an ending. There must be a fifth manuscript gathering dust on Monette’s hard drive with the real conclusion. I mean, Felix and Mildmay are exiled from their exile in Corambis for political reasons more than anything else (while the Corambians may be forward thinking when it comes to technology, they are ever backwards when it comes to human revolutions). Felix accepts an appointment as the wizard lighthouse keeper at Grimglass—and shit, isn’t that freaking cool!—to help Kay defend the land from invaders.
That’s not an ending. That’s a beginning.
If the book hadn’t been published in 2009, I might have hope of another novel on the horizon. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case and I’m left to my own devices to imagine the next installment. Maybe there’s some epic fanfiction out there that will help me. Help me Ao3. You’re my only hope.