I feel slightly uncomfortable about making this post, but it’s been sitting in my drafts since April and I’m just going to do it.
This book is really similar to Sarah Monette’s Melusine. Really similar, I mean. The narrative structure’s similar, the protagonists are similar, the setting’s similar, the MacGuffins are similar. And though they do refer to different things, two proper names are duplicated.
This is not easy for me to ignore.
Beyond that: I don’t recommend this book, because everything that sounds promising about it it screws up. I don’t buy one of the central relationships, I only half-way buy the other, the denouement is kind of a mess, and the Chinese are sneaky.
Details (containing spoilers for Havemercy and both Melusine and The Virtu) under the cut:
The protagonists are Royston, a thirty-something gay wizard who’s been exiled from The City for sleeping with the wrong guy; Hal, a naive sparkly-eyed twenty-year-old who loves books and falls for Royston within about twelve seconds; Rook, a self-centered dragonrider (the dragons are magical steampunk robots, but are nonetheless fairly standard McCaffreyan Impression-type dragons) who used to be a homeless kid, who has just gotten all the dragonriders in trouble by seducing or possibly raping a foreign diplomat’s wife; and Thom, a brilliant but insecure social scientist desperate to hide his own past as a homeless kid, who has been recruited to reform the dragonriders as a placatory gesture to the foreign diplomat’s thereafter-unimportant country.
Similarities to Melusine and its sequels: The whole gay exiled wizard thing. Thom and Rook turn out to be brothers. There is sexual tension between them. The narration is in the first person, alternating between the four of them, with very little interaction between the Royston-Hal and Rook-Thom plotlines until the end. The central problem is that the magical source used by the city’s wizards has been destroyed.
As is obvious from the length of my descriptions up there, the second plotline is more interesting; I would have cut Hal and Royston out entirely, because in addition to having a pretty insipid relationship, they also do very little. Royston’s contribution to Saving The Day consists of catching a deadly disease, while Hal follows people around, occasionally stating the obvious. They both get medals for this at the end? They’re very puzzlingly passive characters.
For example: When Royston gets called back from exile and asks Hal to come back with him, it looks like there’s going to be a confrontation between Royston and his brother, who is Hal’s adoptive father, regarding Royston’s cradle-robbing ways – and then Royston shows up in Hal’s bedroom and explains that he’s sorted the whole thing out off-screen. This happens during one of Hal’s POV segments, and is never referred to again, so we never get any idea what happened there. If Royston had any trouble convincing his homophobic brother to let him take the cute teenage boy to the dissolute city with him, we never get any sense of it.
Also, if Royston feels any reservations about returning to the place that rejected him, again, we don’t really see it.
Rook and Thom would make an acceptable book on their own, I think. They try to fuck with each other’s heads, which I feel is always good, but it’s just not given the space it needs to work. It’s a show-don’t-tell problem. Rook complains that Thom’s attempts to rehabilitate him make him mad, and Thom is humiliated by Rook’s abuse during their group therapy/sensitivity training sessions – but we only actually see two of those sessions. There should be a lot of a dialog between them, but there’s very little of that, and a lot of scenes where Rook thinks about how Thom always says stupid touchy-feely stuff, and Thom thinks about how Rook has a filthy mouth and doesn’t respect women.
At one point Rook becomes convinced Thom is a spy, and to keep him from reporting back, decides to fake occasional moments of vulnerability to make him think he might be succeeding in teaching him to care about other people. Of course, Rook doesn’t realize it, but Thom is succeeding. This could have been compelling – if the writers hadn’t decided to write the entire section from Rook’s POV. Why the hell would they do that? Don’t make a plot point out of one POV character deceiving another if you don’t have the guts to write it.
There’s the same issue in reverse again when Thom realizes they’re brothers, and is trying to steel himself to tell Rook. Everything’s from Thom’s perspective – we have no idea what Rook thinks about Thom hanging around him looking traumatized and vulnerable all the time.
As is probably obvious to anyone who’s read Melusine, Hal is the only character who doesn’t really have an equivalent in that book. Rook is the Mildmay character, except he got Felix’s sociopathy, and the authors were not very good at the whole business of designing his distinctive dialect; it’s a little painful to read sometimes. Thom got Felix’s phobia of his past being revealed and habit of comparing his present life to his life when he was living in a brothel (though it doesn’t appear that he was ever a prostitute; he just lived there and ran errands or something), and Royston is an exiled gay angst-ridden wizard with PTSD and a magically-induced disease.
The names that the books have in common are “bastion” and “molly.” In Melusine the Bastion is an ominous scary castle/government, and in Havemercy “bastion” is used as a profanity – I can’t remember if it’s ever explained why. “Molly” refers to the Bad Part of Town where Rook and Thom are from in Havemercy, and means “gay” in Melusine. Obviously they’re very different meanings, but the fact that the terms kept showing up was very distracting in light of the other similarities.
The book’s crisis comes when the wizards and the dragons start getting sick, and it’s discovered that the Well, the source of all the City’s magic, has been poisoned by the Chinese. They used bribery, a magical snake, sneak attacks, and other techniques reinforcing Western stereotypes of Asians as being sneaky and conniving. Unlike in Melusine, this isn’t somehow Royston’s fault, but, again, the similarity’s very obtrusive. Later, the Chinese surrender, because in addition to being conniving they are poor planners, and had apparently stored all of their military resources beneath one massive conspicuous blue dome, which the dragons blow up. Good work, there. (Is traditional Chinese architecture really all that big on domes?)
I haven’t really talked much about the dragons because, uh, the book doesn’t talk much about them, either. You’d think a magical talking robot dragon title character would get some good lines in. But Rook’s dragon Havemercy talks so rarely, and to so little effect, that it’s not a particularly noticeable change when the magical disease makes her go mute. She’s also the most important named female character, and she and most of the other (all-female) dragons sacrifice themselves to save the City. You go, girls. (This book does not pass the Bechdel test, incidentally.)
So: not recommended unless angsty slash heals all wounds.