Maledicte marks Lane Robins’ first effort as a novelist, and a glance at the cover – which depicts and androgynous face in profile, eyes covered with an ornate Venetian-style domino, the title written with gothic type and the tagline: “A novel of love, betrayal, and vengeance” – it quickly becomes clear that Robins is aiming at a brand of dark fantasy of manners and courtly intrigue that have been very successful in the hands of writers like Jacqueline Carey and Ellen Kushner.
The story starts with a short prologue, where the reader is introduced to two teenagers, Miranda and Janus, who eke out a precarious existence in the Relicts, the slum of Murne, capital of the kingdom of Antyre. Here, Janus is kidnapped by a nobleman acting on the behalf of the Earl of Last. Janus is, in fact, the illegitimate son of the earl, who is in desperate need of an heir. The children know none of this, and the kidnapping thus takes a violent turn. In her desperation, Miranda takes an oath of vengeance and gives her soul into the keeping of Black-Winged Ani, the merciless and bloodthirsty goddess of love and revenge. She intends to reclaim Janus, her first love, and kill his father, the earl of Last.
Disguised as a young man, Miranda enters the household of the baron Vornatti where she creates the persona of Maledicte. Three years later, Maledicte is introduced at the court of King Aris under the patronage of Vornatti. Here s/he cuts an enigmatic and elegant figure, wielding an equally sharp-edged wit and sword among a dissolute nobility. Maledicte attracts the attention of the king with his androgynous beauty, but s/he also creates scandal and makes enemies.
It is at court that Maledicte meets Janus again. They enter into a scandalous love affair that quickly becomes tainted by the ambitions of Janus. As the son of an earl and the nephew of the king, Janus is highly placed at court. He is, however, not content and thus schemes ruthlessly in order to crawl closer to the throne of Antyre. He doesn’t hesitate to use Maledicte, whose god-ridden bloodlust steadily increases, to eliminate whoever stands in his way. However, events spin out of control as Maledicte, goaded by Ani’s lust for blood, edges ever closer to madness. Maledicte is torn between several different identities and the question is whether s/he can recover herself in order to prevent destroying all s/he holds dear.
Lane Robins is very deft in the pacing of the plot, doling out information sparingly in order to create suspense. This makes for at somewhat slow start, but the reader’s patience is rewarded when the story increases in intensity after the first hundred or so pages. The story is focused on courtly intrigues and is full of twists and turns, some fairly unexpected and surprising. The prose is fluid, yet unobtrusive with some shining moments in the descriptions of the opulence of the aristocratic environment and the deadly, sharp-witted banter of the jaded courtiers.
The world-building is sketchy, to say the least. Details about the world the characters inhabit are used very sparingly and only when it suits the plot. The result is a rather hazy impression of a Regency-style world of high society balancing on the cusp of a “modern” era (with oblique references to colonial expansion and industrial innovation). The city Murne, where most of the story takes place, is a little better fleshed out, and Robins makes a few attempts at providing her world with some back-story. However, details about Antyre’s history, its relations with the neighbouring Itarus, its religion and the exile of the gods is scattered about the text in an haphazard and inconsistent manner, which in the end imparts no more than a fuzzy outline of the fantastical world Maledicte inhabits. Actually, it is Maledicte himself, who, unwittingly voices the reader’s experience of the world the story is set in:
“Maledicte thought of maps and distance, but his knowledge was sketchy. Vornatti had taught him about the city and its fashionable retreats. Janus had told him about Itarus, and Gilly had sweetened his dreams with descriptions of the Explorations. Ennisere meant nothing, a foggy blur on an unfinished map of the world.”
The world of Robins’ novel can in fact best be described as an unfinished map, its fuzzy and blank spots enticing and intriguing, its inconsistencies unexplained. Why, for example, are the god-ridden traditionally persecuted as witches despite their roles as vessels of the divine? How were the exiled gods worshipped? How much did they interfere in the lives of mortals and was their interference always detrimental to humans? One of the themes in Maledicte is the question of superstition since most people, except Vornatti’s man-servant Gilly, believe that the old gods are simply a fabrication, which is why very few are able to recognize that Maledicte functions a vessel for Ani’s bloodlust. But this theme is ultimately undermined by the lack of information. The reader is simply told that the gods disappeared after a battle a few decades back and that people happily abandoned religion altogether – a rather implausible explanation in my opinion. All in all, Lane Robins gives the reader a tantalising glimpse of a rather fascinating world and one can only hope that she will develop it further in subsequent books.
Apart from the world-building, my main criticism of the novel concerns the characterization. The story is told via a third person narrative with shifting POV, which can be slightly confusing at times. The main POV is, however, not that of Miranda/Maledicte but instead of the servant Gilly, who plays the role of Maledicte’s friend and confidant as well as the primary witness to the events of the story. He therefore comes across as not only the most sympathetic of the characters but also as the main character of the story. Maledicte is as much Gilly’s story as it is Mirande/Maledicte’s. The reader is only rarely given an insight into the workings of Maledicte’s mind, a fact that lessens the emotional impact of his/her role as the supposed main character. Maledicte mostly comes across as sinister and childishly sullen rather than charismatic and intriguing. In the end, this rather distanced perspective makes it somewhat difficult for the reader to engage herself in the eventual fate of Maledicte and Janus. I, at least, found that I cared more about what happened to Gilly than to the other characters.
I found the question of Maledicte’s multiple identities one of the most interesting aspects of the novel, and was therefore quite frustrated with the author’s inability to explore, in a satisfying manner, the demands and expectations between the overlapping and conflicting identities of Miranda, Maledicte and Ani. Part of the problem is connected to the use of POV, while another relates to the lack of back-story. Miranda and her relationship with Janus are simply not developed enough, prior to the creation of the Maledicte persona, to be convincing and make her yearning for revenge understandable. Their all-encompassing love remains a postulate that is stated by the characters but never proven by the narrative itself. Maledicte’s complete devotion to Janus is fundamentally incomprehensible to the reader (especially as regards the manner in which Janus later makes use of his lover) because one is never really made to understand exactly what these two young people meant to each other before the main plot is set into motion. Since the whole story revolves around a love thwarted and betrayed, the lack of back-story for Miranda and Janus is a rather serious failing on the author’s part. Another poorly developed aspect is the process in which the poor street-rat Miranda transforms herself into the elegant, sharp-witted courtier and swordsman Maledicte, something which could have helped to explain how the young woman comes to identify so completely with an identity gendered in the masculine.
Ani’s divine possession of Miranda/Maledicte is perhaps the single-most fascinating aspect of the story, but it suffers from a somewhat uneven handling that oscillates between psychological exploration and external action. Robins gives the reader a few tantalizing hints of the inner conflict between the vengeful goddess and her human vessel, since Maledicte at times attempts to withstand Ani’s seductive whisperings of blood and death. Robins strives to maintain this delicate balance between Maledicte and Ani through most of the novel, but since the POV mostly belong to Gilly and rarely to Maledicte, this aspect often comes across as a pretext for escalating the violence to a level that sometimes approaches the farcical. I must admit that I was continually amazed at the licence Maledicte was given by the king despite his very suspect actions.
Maledicte by Lane Robins can perhaps best be described as a high-strung melodrama of manners, set in a dark and glittering world of courtly intrigue where love and betrayal walks hand in hand. It is an entertaining and suspenseful read, which might appeal to fans of Jacqueline Carey and Ellen Kushner, though it doesn’t reach the high standards of their work. Despite my reservations, I still consider Maledicte a solid first effort from a promising author. Lane Robins is certainly an author worth watching.