Sometimes my grandma would illuminate an evening with comments and asides. In her day, she had been a great hostess, born into a famous family and used to the need to create entertainment in the days when Marconi was still experimenting with radio waves. As she grew older, she yielded the playing field of entertaining discourse to my mother who, by my standards, never knew when to stop chattering on. Consequently, I have become something of a recluse and never socialise unless I am forced into it. But back to the earlier generation. My grandma, having been the victim of a private tutor, was well versed in history and had perfected the famous Parthian shot which she delivered with devastating effect without ever feeling the need to leave the room.
In Corambis by Sarah Monette we have the author storming out of the room with a parting shot to conclude the tetralogy which passes under the name of The Doctrine of Labyrinths. I say “conclude” with a wry smile because the key characters are all still alive and could, if Monette was offered a suitably large sum of money, continue their adventures in the next destination called Grimglass. Indeed, there are hints to that effect in the latter parts of Corambis.
As in any series, a balance has to be struck between “stuff happening” and character development. Taking the four books overall, Monette is charting the growth in the characters, Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay Foxe, as individuals and in their relationship as half brothers. To achieve this, she adopts a multiple point-of-view structure with, in this case, each of the three major characters having their own first person sections to carry on the story line. It allows three different interior monologues to illuminate events. From a purely technical standpoint, the mechanics of the narrative are well developed with Felix, Mildmay and Kay each given a reasonably distinctive voice. Unfortunately, as in the previous books, there is just too much padding. This would have made a really good trilogy.
There are some interesting and completely unexpected developments in the realisation of the world. Suddenly, we are pitched into a comparatively modern society which has significant urbanisation including an underground railway system, paddle steamers for river navigation and ocean crossing, and a social system in which the upper class takes coffee “in the library”. Frankly, I had not realised Mélusine was such a primitive backwater. However, this does allow Monette to quietly examine how social attitudes to a heritage of magic might change as society becomes more sophisticated. This includes comments on how novelists and historians may conspire to shape the discourse and reinterpret the inexplicable as something altogether more prosaic. In this, there is a nod in the direction of a clichéd Brave New World where Felix (as Mr. Savage) becomes an object of fascination and fear in a world more used to railway trains running on time than practising magicians plying their trade.
That said, stuff must happen — in a fantasy novel such as this, it is mandatory that the readers are exposed to magic and there must be a threat to be neutralised. As to the magic, we are given the now customary gay rape with fairly routine S&M thrown in along the way — at least, as a source of magic, there is something here for the local historians to gloss over and quietly forget. The local political scene is coloured by the presence of some magic but only unremarkable routinised magic (save, perhaps, for the medical arts). For what it’s worth, I think more could have been made of the functionality of the labyrinths all round the world. As to the threat: in the opening chapter, we are introduced to the machine at the heart of the labyrinth under Summerdown. Monette is laying down a marker. This is going to be the literal engine of destruction that Felix and Mildmay must confront and subdue. Indeed, to whet our appetite, it kills all but one of the men seeking to bring it to life, striking the one survivor blind. Unfortunately, this is never realised as a ravening machine laying waste to the countryside. Some trains stop unexpectedly when passing by the site of the machine, some sheep die and it may be connected to one or two suicides. But everything else is all rather hypothetical. We come to the view that it’s probably very dangerous and might be able to cause the deaths of many, but there’s no real sense of menace. Indeed, when Felix does finally confront it, the ending is comparable to a driver taking the ignition key out of the car and walking away. It feels like a plot element that has to be there so that Felix can finally forgive himself for all the bad things he has done.
So, as with the earlier three books, Corambis is too long and, while it does have some good ideas and is, for the most part, well written, I was bored towards the end. I read it to find out how it finished rather than because I was driven by the energy of the narrative. I think Mélusine, the first book in the series, remains the best and, if you have not read any of the series, confine yourself to Mélusine and the second, The Virtu. The remaining two books are rather more portentous and overblown. If you have read the three in the series, Corambis does tie up most of the loose ends and it’s moderately interesting to see how it all turns out.
For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: A Companion to Wolves and its sequel The Tempering of Men jointly with Elizabeth Bear, The Bone Key and a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key, and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves