Minotaurs

In recent days I’ve been engaging in a re-read of the Doctrine of Labyrinths, a fantasy series by Sarah Monette. In doing so, I’m reminded of one of its most unique features:

A realistic depiction of two people having an argument.

The two main characters of D0L are Felix, an asshole wizard who likes to think of himself as a scholarly nobleman, and his half-brother Mildmay, an ex-thief and -assassin who is a street rat and knows it. And even though the two brothers are each other’s closest allies throughout the books, and even though they really do care for each other, they spend the vast majority of the narrative engaging in pissy little fights and driving each other up the wall.

Most books don’t do this, you realize. In most books, when two people are friends, they are FRIENDS — completely loyal to one another, willing to think the best of each other, and never in any serious disagreement. When they have an argument, it’s either a consequence of some Three’s Company-style Hilarious Misunderstanding or because one has a serious character flaw that the author is going to have him get over with the help of his friend. In either case, it’s obvious that one character is absolutely right, the author knows it, and the author expects you to know it and react accordingly.

How realistic is that, though? Monette is one of the only authors I’ve ever encountered able to depict two people who love each other and have every interest in getting along… but still not have them get along perfectly. There are cultural differences, genuine misunderstandings, fair disagreements, statements taken the wrong way, insults that are hastily spit out and instantly regretted. Monette is so deft at this that she can show a scene from Felix’s viewpoint and have it seem as though Felix is absolutely in the right… then switch to Mildmay’s viewpoint, show him absolutely stewing over what just happened, and have you sympathizing with him without even realizing the shift. Nobody takes a wrong position just so that the author can have the “right” character lecture at them. Everyone feels justified, from their perspective, in what they do and say. It’s really rather refreshing.

The Doctrine of Labyrinths didn’t sell, and as a result Monette is being forced to publish her next book under a pen name (Katherine Addison, if I recall correctly). That’s really too bad, because she’s an amazing talent with a superb eye for characterization.

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