Lane Robins, Maledicte (Del Rey, 2007)

In her debut fantasy novel Maledicte, author Lane Robins achieves something highly unusual in modern fiction: she creates a sympathetic villain hero.

I'm not talking your average underdog or anti-hero. I don't mean one of those cute, on-the-cusp bad boys everyone loves to love, especially in Hollywood and darker fantasy. I mean an actual, cat-killing, baby-threatening, innocent-murdering, woman-terrorizing bad guy.

Your average anti-hero tells lies, but they are forgivable lies, told to evil people or to save the innocent or to manipulate the wicked. Your everyday lovable villain probably doesn't hesitate to kill in self-defense, but goes out of his way to avoid harming the hapless coachman, the innocent servant, the unwitting dupe. And in modern times (though not necessarily in older works), a truly sympathetic hero would never kill a dozen common housecats with casual lack of emotion. Not if an author wanted to garner any wide-spread sympathy for her main character.

And yet, here is Maledicte.

It's some small measure of excuse that Maledicte is in the grip of a powerful god of vengeance: Black-Winged Ani of the exiled gods of Antyre. One can read many of Maledicte's actions as symptoms of Ani's growing power over her servant, proof of the dehumanizing effect of Ani's presence. But Maledicte, determined to be reunited with his lover Janus at any cost to himself or others, comes to welcome this power, to allow Ani to bend him to her will and use him to her own dark purposes in an effort to achieve his own.

But then there is the second most-interesting thing about Maledicte: he is a woman.

A girl, really, though he is appropriately referred to in the masculine throughout most of the book. Even naked and rolling in Janus's arms, he is himself. Yet he is also Miranda, a beautiful, scarred, enchanted sword-wielding thief-child from the gutters of the ruined part of the city, the Relicts. Miranda's bargain with Ani and her transformation into Maledicte begin when her small street gang is attacked and Janus abducted. Janus is the illegitimate son of a disinherited noblewoman and the only surviving heir of the royal House of Last. Miranda is nearly killed trying to prevent Janus's abduction. Wounded, she crawls into a forgotten cave, an ancient, buried temple of the old gods. There she finds Ani's sword and accepts Ani's enchantment.

In her pursuit of Janus's father (she means to kill him, and Ani, a god of vengeance, has supplied her with the means and fired her obsession), Miranda/Maledicte becomes accepted into the court of Antyre. The king, proclaiming against open homosexual behavior in his court in an effort to stem the tide of decadence and self-indulgence upon which his nobles ride, finds himself inexplicably drawn to the "Dark Courtier." Repeatedly, he finds himself forgiving Maledicte's outrageous behavior, especially when it comes to Janus. Helplessly watching Maledicte's descent into madness and self-destruction is his servant Gilly. Gilly, too, loves the Dark Courtier, despite his usual preference for the company of women. Gilly, too, finds himself indulging, accommodating, aiding and abetting Maledicte far past the point of reason.

And Janus? Janus loves Maledicte as well. But whether his devotion matches that of Maledicte's, or whether he is worthy of such single-minded and obsessive passion is a question Gilly believes he has the answer to, if only he can convince his Dark Courtier of the same.

This really was a fascinating read. There were so many elements here that begged my attention. The language and storytelling are lush and baroque, almost too intense -- like a strong, heady wine, or a bittersweet fruit that makes you crave more. The detail, the political intrigue, the obsessive love, was almost as repellent as it was compelling. Almost. At several points I feared Robins had strayed too far, lost my sympathy for her villain/hero. But she always managed to reel me back. In all, Maledicte is quite a thrilling ride, and I loved the ending. It was perfect, and left just the right taste in my mouth.

[Camille Alexa]