Review: Corambis

Corambis, by Sarah Monette

Corambis is the fourth and final book in Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series, the first three of which I read and liked quite a bit. Unfortunately, by the time the fourth book came out  the series was apparently enough of a commercial failure that Ace didn’t exactly give it their all in promoting the book, and I never saw it in the wild. I could have ordered it online, but it never seemed to be the most immediately relevant thing to spend my money on. (As a side note, one of the things being lost, at least by me, due to online shopping is the impulse buy. If I’m in a store and have something that I want in my hands, I’m much more likely to just say “The hell with it” and buy it. Online, though, I’m much more deliberative, much more likely to come to the conclusion that I don’t really need this thing I’m looking at right this moment. It’s an odd distinction.) I finally bought it when I was getting Sonic Colors, which was significantly cheaper online than it was physically, a few weeks back, and finally got around to reading it during my vacation last week.

As for the book itself, I’m of mixed feelings about how necessary it was. The first three books in the series comprise a complete plot arc revolving around the city of Melusine. By the end, all of the outstanding mysteries have been solved and most of the characters have reached a resolution, which is the normal stopping point for a series. Corambis reminds me of a video game trilogy where the main three games were so wildly successful that the publisher can’t possibly hang up the franchise now that the story is done, so they keep commissioning side-stories and spinoffs to keep the money flowing in. Corambis takes place in an entirely different physical location than the first three books, stars entirely different characters aside from Felix and Mildmay, and follows an entirely different plot (and, moreover, an entirely different kind of plot). It feels much more “sequel-y” than the first three, much more added-on.

That’s not to say that the book is crassly commercial. If you look closely, you can see that Felix and Mildmay’s internal character arcs hadn’t yet reached a resolution by the end of The Mirador, and Corambis is largely about patching that up. Their relationship with each other and with themselves transforms from work-in-progress to something stable and able to build upon by the end of this book, and at the end you get the impression that finally, finally they have an understanding. One of the things I really liked about this series is that it it showed recovery from trauma and rebuilding relationships as a difficult process and not the instantaneous semi-magical act it seems to be in most fantasy novels. That said, though, this kind of book quickly becomes unbearable if nothing good ever happens to the characters, so it’s nice to see them get some measure of peace in the end.

One other thing I noticed was that the book doesn’t really have an antagonist. According to Monette, this was intentional and reflects her maturation as a writer — the first two books in the series had a villain, the third had antagonists, but the fourth just has people in conflict. This might be more realistic, but it does result in the plot feeling kind of unfocused and random — since no one person is behind what’s going on, in a lot of senses it just feels like Felix lurching randomly from one miscellaneous crisis to the next. The dramatic, important scenes seem to spike out of nowhere amidst everyday normality. I don’t know that this is necessarily good or bad, but it did seem worth noting.

In the end, Corambis strikes me as a book that you don’t necessarily need — as noted, the first three books comprise a full arc and the fourth feels tacked on in some ways — but if you’re a fan of those first three books you will want it. Monette’s gifts for character voice and realistic personal conflict is still in full force, so you’re willing to go along with her even if she doesn’t end up anywhere.

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