The Doctrine of Labyrinths is a four-book fantasy series from truepenny, set in a richly imagined world. The level of worldbuilding is quite impressive, with all manner of intriguing cultural detail surfacing within the story; she uses Latin and Greek and French names to provide flavor to particular cultures, but she’s done a much more thorough job than simply filing the serial numbers off a particular stage of European history. Her viewpoint characters are all quite distinctive, with their own patterns of speech and perspectives, each choosing different idioms to express themselves, and each having their own well-earned psychological triggers while still remaining sympathetic. Unlike most high fantasy, this is not epic fantasy— the story turns on human-scale developments that prevent massive battles before anyone even tries to put a grand army together.
The series opens with Mélusine and the viewpoints of Felix Harrowgate, a wizard of the Mirador— housing the court— in the city of Mélusine, and Mildmay the Fox, a cat burglar and former assassin. Their paths would ordinarily have no occasion to cross, save that a foreign wizard arrives in the city with divinations that say the two of them will be necessary for him to gain revenge on a third wizard. The ensuing complications wind up dragging Felix and Mildmay halfway across a continent, and introducing the theme of the labyrinth that winds through all four books. Part of the difficulty in the stories comes from the characters themselves, but Monette always keeps them sympathetic, even though some of their flaws can be exasperating.
In The Virtu, Felix and Mildmay return to Mélusine, where the Virtu, a powerful enchanted artifact that is crucial to the integrity of the community of wizards that protect the city, has been damaged. Neither of them are expecting a welcome on their homecoming— but Felix is the only person with a chance to repair the Virtu before the neighboring Kekropian Empire takes advantage of Mélusine’s weakness. And the solution involves a labyrinth beneath the Mirador itself. This book resolves the significant threads left hanging from Mélusine. While our heroes have clearly learned from their journey, they still have a lot of room to grow.
The Mirador brings in a third viewpoint character, the actress Mehitabel Parr, who joined Felix and Mildmay in The Virtu. We learn early on that Mehitabel is an unwilling spy for the Kekropian Empire, and court intrigue unfolds while Felix studies ghosts in the depths of the Mirador. The character development gets pretty grueling in this one; Monette is definitely the sort to put her characters in the crucible. The worldbuilding continues to be excellent, right down to Mehitabel’s narrative style referencing stage plays that are famous in her world.
In Corambis, Felix and Mildmay have been exiled from Mélusine to the nation of Corambis; they leave Mehitabel Parr behind, but a new viewpoint comes in with Kay Brightmore, the former Margrave of Rothmarlin and a failed rebel against the Corambin government. Corambis is technologically ahead of the rest of the continent, with railroads and subways (though no gunpowder— plausible, given developments in the Roman Empire, but quite exotic for a fantasy), and a legacy of dangerous magical clockwork mechanisms. And there’s a very nasty such clockwork device at the heart of a labyrinth. This volume finally sees Felix and Mildmay making solid progress on learning to deal with their own character flaws and each other, and makes for a satisfying conclusion— though there is certainly room for more stories ahead.