My very favorite character doesn’t show up until the last book, Corambis, in which Monette basically managed to pile all my favorite things onto a single angst-ridden character: Kay, who was a leading figure in a battle for independence that just failed utterly when Kay’s would-be king (with whom Kay was secretly and unrequitedly in love) died in a magic spell gone horribly wrong, which also blinded Kay.
Blind, deprived of his cause, bound to the would-be king’s catafalque in a great hall in the middle of a city where people come and stare at him like a zoo animal - OH THE ANGST.
(This also highlights one of the more problematic aspects of the series, which is that it tends to eroticize the misery and vulnerability of the characters.)
But I’ve put off my reviews because, as appealing as I find the the worldbuilding and the endless angst, Monette’s handling of female characters has always troubled me - but in a way that I found hard to articulate. What is there to complain about in “Sarah Monette’s female characters are all so functional and efficient and on top of things”?
However, the article I hate Strong Female Characters has shaken a few thoughts loose. The capitalization is important here: the author is not complaining about strong female characters, who are well-written and well-rounded and important actors in their stories, but about the archetype of the Strong Female Character, who shows that she’s effective and can fight and thus circumvents feminist criticism about the tiresome commonality of damsels in distress - but nonetheless remains subsidiary.
(The article is worth reading. The key sentence, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that “We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.”)
And this is what bothers me about most of Monette’s female characters in the Doctrine of Labyrinths (aside from Ginevra Thomson). They're generally Strong; you could not accuse, say, Mehitabel Parr of being a damsel in distress: she’s brisk and efficient and goes after what she wants.
But Monette’s strength lies in creating characters who are interesting because they’re angsty and tortured and make terrible and self-destructive decisions because their miserable pasts have messed up their senses of self-worth so badly. They may nonetheless be strong, in their own way; but there is no way to make "bound to a catafalque" fit into the box of Strong. And none of these qualities make for brisk efficiency.
And there is something really rather off-putting about the fact that briskness seems to be the most important indicator of a female character’s worth: that you can tell this is a good character because she isn’t going to take up too much narrative space. She will briskly do her duty in the story, and won’t take time away from the main characters’ angsty brooding.