To begin with, I would advise anyone considering Mélusine to also pick up the sequel, The Virtu, and read the two back-to-back. My understanding is that they were originally intended as one book, and while I enjoyed both of them when reading them a few months apart, I think they would read even better treated as a single book as together they form a distinct story arc where what is now the second volume brings the conclusion of many plot threads opened in the first.
However, in the end that is not how they were published, and with that in mind, this review attempts to focus on Mélusine. In it we are introduced to the two characters who alternate as the first-person narrators of the story; Felix Harrowgate and Mildmay the Fox. Felix is a wizard of the Mirador, the school of magic (note, we’re not talking school in the Harry Potter-sense here; in the setting wizards are simply trained within different traditions of magic) that is most prominent in the city of Mélusine. Mildmay is a cat-burglar whose home is the Lower City, seedy underside of Mélusine. As narrators, they have very distinct and dissimilar voices, and as characters they don’t appear to have much at all in common. At least not to start with. However, as the story progresses, this changes somewhat.
Their personalities and the nature of their chapters do, however, remain quite different from each other. Felix acts every inch the nobleman; elegant, witty and devastatingly charming. Mildmay, on the other hand, is a gutter rat and he thinks and speaks like one. Readers may very well find themselves preferring one over the other. Personally, I enjoyed Felix’s chapters the most, as he’s a quite thoroughly messed up individual beneath the too-polished surface. He’s not a particularly nice person, though, and he spends a large portion of the first book driven mad after his former master uses Felix’s powers to attack the Mirador, which makes some of his chapters quite difficult to read. Mildmay is a less extreme character and on the whole rather more likable as a person than Felix, but his chapters contain a lot of internal ramblings that had a slight stream of consciousness-flavour to me. Occasionally I found them difficult to keep my concentration on, but Elio preferred Mildmay’s chapters to those of Felix.
In addition to Felix and Mildmay, one could argue that the city of Mélusine is a fairly important character too. Its a fantastical city where the decadence of the nobility’s quarters are contrasted against the seediness of the Lower City. For the setting, Monette appears to have drawn on an interesting mix of sources. The feel of the world (at least of Mélusine) is more 19th century than medieval, but there are a lot of strange cults and religions around, showing influences of not the least Greek myth and religion. Magic plays a prominent (but not over-powering) role in the story, with wizards divided up into various schools who all seem fairly narrow minded about what they condone or what they consider vulgar or even heretic.
What about the plot, though? Well, there certainly is some, though I’d consider Mélusine a primarily character-driven as opposed to plot-driven book. The catalyst for most of what happens in the book is Malkar’s use of Felix to attack the Mirador, an event which eventually leads both Felix and Mildmay out of Mélusine and onto a rather strange path. But while I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the setting and the magic, it was finding out more about Felix and Mildmay that really kept me turning those pages.