by Shirley Yoshinaka
This book was published through Lulu, that perennial grandparent of self-publishing, and that means there is only so much that can be expected in terms of quality threshold… but it’s still a mess from the outside. There's no text on the spine, which led to me spending ten minutes at my Big Wall O' Phantom trying to find it, and the back cover copy is so small and blurred that I literally could not read it. Something about London, and, like, a life of solitude.
But the dedication throws a little love Leroux's way, and I’m always glad to see that!
The opening of the story, in which Erik briefly contemplates his sadness after the debacle with Christine but eventually decides to get back up, not commit suicide, and move out of Paris, is set in 1880. I was a little confused by the one-year difference from the usual projected date of the novel, but hell, it's way closer than most other things. It's in the right ballpark, and it's not 1871, so I'll take it.
It’s refreshing to see Erik act more like a reasonable (dare I say… redeemed?) adult than most authors paint him; he actively refuses to wallow in his grief, tries to take what he can learn from his mistakes and move on, and recalls that he's been in much worse situations in his life rather than wailing over how hard everything is.
But now, the female protagonist has arrived. And her name is Melodie. And she's blind.
These are both bad clichés in the Phantom derivation universe. Naming characters, especially girls and women, after musical notation or concepts has been done to death, and even if it hadn’t been, it borders on cutesy even when done deftly. Setting Erik up with a blind love interest is a whole ball of unfortunate problems: from the ableism of deciding that the Phantom can only be loved by someone who can’t see how hideous he is to the secondary ableism of inventing a disabled character just so she can be an appropriate trophy for the main male one, it’s cringing all the way down. Yoshinaka’s version avoids being as awful as many of the others (I’m looking directly at you, Siciliano novel) by devoting some time and examination to Melodie’s characterization and relationship with her disability, but it’s not entirely successful. (You might think there would be an original trope-beginner to blame for this trend of blind love interests, but as far as I can tell, authors seem to believe they have all simultaneously invented it themselves.)
So, Melodie. She has a degenerative eye condition that has caused her sight to begin to fail, steadily worsening over the years until she now sees mostly blurs and colors and needs a cane to get around reliably. What condition this actually is remains unexplained, though I know it can't be anything that would make her eyes less "beautiful" or "limpid" so the normal suspects like corneal distrophy are out; again the disability is here as a narrative device in order to give the male character a love interest, and it’s obvious when it isn’t allowed to interfere with her desirability in any way. Melodie works as a household servant and is reasonably worried about losing her job if they find out that her sight is diminishing, so she's been hiding the condition from the family and is assisted only by Henry, an older man who, we will learn later, serves as her adopted father.
Yoshinaka's prose is... confusing. It's often a little bit stock and a little bit corny, with unexpected veers off into the unnecessarily overdramatic, but on the whole it's actually not too bad. It's certainly vivid when it isn't insisting on using hyperbolic or stock-romance vocabulary (I cannot get over seeing "limpid" in the year of our lord 2006), and her technical skills are good, which is often a place that authors self-publishing without an editor have problems.
The beginning of this book really pulled out all the stops to try to make me hate it, though. Melodie is, of course, a musical prodigy who was composing, Mozart-like, at age six, and whose gentle and sweet nature makes her beloved by everybody including the rich people she works for; and by page six, we've met David Wentworth, a wealthy nobleman who was her childhood friend and now has romantic designs on her, but who is also an alcoholic good-for-nothing who tries to rape her within a page of his introduction. It's like a game of Count the Bad Clichées, from the music genius female character whose skills are there just to make her Erik’s perfect mate to the obvious Evil Raoul analogue to the She's So Beautiful I Must Rape Her method of introducing a villain. David is such a painfully one-note villain at his introduction (he even shouts "You'll pay for this!" when she escapes) that I wouldn’t blame most readers for not making it into the next chapter.
The cavalcade of clichéd nonsense continues here. Erik, who despite ostensibly being a dude on the up-and-up who now lives on an estate outside of London, still sneaks illegally into theaters to listen to the orchestra play instead of buying a goddamn seat. When he explains that he only crashes performances and pays for everything else in life, I just rolled my eyes; this isn’t his opera house and you’d think this jackass would want to support the arts, but apparently his Aesthetic is more important.
He happens to notice young Melodie and her caretaker Henry when they also sneak in to watch a show, which they have apparently been doing for years (and which is more forgivable in their case, since they certainly can't afford seats and probably wouldn't be welcome in them if they could). He's noticed her a few times before, but he only becomes "intrigued" once he sees her cane on a visit and realizes that she's blind. This is just as gross as it looks because it implies that he's only interested in her because she can't see him, not because of anything about her personally, and any chance of owning up to that or acknowledging it is lost in discussion of his "muscles" and "commanding" or "intimidating aura".
Anyway, it's very shocking when she notices him hiding in the shadows! Apparently Erik has never heard of perceptual compensation.
And in case I wasn't already drowning in trite, well-traveled Phantom clichés, along comes the obligatory cute animal that Erik immediately adopts and nurses back to health in order to show what a sensitive and loving soul he has. In this case, it's a collie puppy that he names Sascha, an obvious callback to Erik's dog of the same name in Kay's 1990 novel. In addition to Kay, Binkley, Chappel, Jones, Vale Allen, and Whitehead all do this, and that’s before we get past the mid-2000s. I like animals and I’m prepared to believe that a book character likes them, too, but they’re always just shorthand for how Erik actually has hidden depths of empathetic worthiness and the animals can sense it, and then we forget all about them again.
After some mental begging of forgiveness from Christine, the chapter finally moves on. Thank goodness.
But here things start to get interesting. Rather than remaining at the Wentworths', Melodie recognizes that rapists in positions of power rarely back off when escaped from and finds a new position at another rich family's home, serving as a piano teacher for the family's young daughter. It's a move that shows the character's ability to be sensible and realistic in taking care of herself, rather than waiting for some handsome prince to come save her from the evil David. It’s nice to see a heroine in a Phantom sequel taking action on her own behalf.
Of course, David stole all her previously-written compositions as a parting shot, which made me immediately assume that at some point he would either destroy it in a gloating fashion or publish it and lie about it being his (or someone else in his employ's). Bafflingly, this never happened; even if you don't care about drawing parallels to the music thievery in the 1943, 1962 and 1974 films, much of this book has to do with Melodie making her career as a composer, something David becomes aware of over the course of events. Somehow this entire trunk of music just vanishes and is never mentioned again, lost in the depths of the Sea of Forgotten Plot Points.
Of course, the heroine can't save herself from everything or Erik would have nothing to prove how dashing he is, so at this point a horse conveniently spooks in the street and nearly runs Melodie over, allowing Erik to make a mad dash to pull her to safety, crushing her against his manly chest. He then once again trotted out his incredible empathic link with animals to soothe the frightened horse and then castigate its driver for not taking good enough care of it, presumably to distract the reader from how clumsy and overused a meet-cute “pedestrian nearly run over by [vehicle] but is saved by love interest” always is. This book was written just a year after Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, where that particular device reached its inevitably stunningly bad conclusion. Don’t pull pages from Twilight, y’all.
Like so many other Eriks I've met lately, Yoshinaka's appears to be supported by some kind of endless fund of mystery money. I can't figure out where his money comes from; he mentions at the beginning that he had some "modest savings" that he used to buy a cottage when he got to the outskirts of London, but what he lives on in terms of everyday needs like food and clothes is an enigma unplumbed. He even discusses how he refuses to stoop to a life of crime any longer, so he's obviously not back to his old extortionary ways (though, hilariously, he mentions his regular concert-crashing in the same paragraph with no apparent recognition of the irony of it). Nah, he's just, you know, "well off" in some mysterious way, even though that makes no sense and he does nothing that could be construed as work or even subsistence farming for the entire run of the book.
The economics in this book are actually pretty interesting. Yoshinaka does a good job of presenting Melodie as a servant-class girl: she works for a living, doesn't have a lot of disposable income and generally relies on the goodwill of her employers to avoid being reduced to begging. The social dynamics of Melodie and Erik as "common people" instead of members of the glitterati is a choice that doesn't come up in later sequels much; while Melodie's peasant status recalls Christine's, Erik's is more muddled. In essence, he's a peasant who somehow lives like a noble, having apparently no need to work or end to his income when he needs it, which probably has to do with the subconscious idea that men have to be rich, or at least comfortable, in order to be romantically viable. And in a sense it's true, since Yoshinaka's vision for this novel clearly involves Erik spending all day at the piano instead of out being a stevedore or something; she wouldn't have been able to set Erik as a man consumed only by his art form and ignoring all worldly concerns if he were doing mundane things like butlering. The effect is that, while Melodie does play a convincing servant, Erik is really just a nobleman in peasant's clothing - which is ironic, as a vast portion of his imagery in the original story has to do with how far below even the lowest classes of humanity he falls.
To cap off all this compelling economic discussion, it is only when he realizes that Melodie intends to sell some of her compositions that it occurs to Erik that he could do that, too. Oh, yeah, this one's got his head on sensible shoulders, y’all.
Things don't really get better here for a while, either. Erik has a bizarre holier-than-thou contempt for everybody else in London for no apparent reason ("These heartless ninnies were so concerned with their own precious necks, they wouldn't lift a finger to save a young woman's life!"), Melodie's music is absolutely fucking brilliant even by his standards, Erik progresses into an outrageous tantrum when she tries to get him to go to a teahouse with her and tries to intimidate her with all his manliness (and dude, I know you guys are servant-class in this story, but this is still Victorian England, so please stop threatening ladies' virtues just out on the street in public), and eventually, when she convinces him to help her finish her composition, a serious discussion is had about how she will have to either sneak illegally into the theatre to work with him at that piano, or make the long travel out to his cottage to do so. Because apparently these are THE ONLY TWO PIANOS IN LONDON.
Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, Melodie gets her first glimpse of Erik's beautiful green eyes here. Hi, Butler. I knew you'd be coming to this party.
Melodie has enlisted Erik's help because her failing sight has made it too difficult for her to focus on writing music down; she gets splitting migraines if she tries for too long, and is concerned she won't be able to finish in time without a scribe to aid her. The reversed dynamic of Melodie as the composer and Erik as merely the scribe is one that I enjoy, even though Erik spoils it slightly by being too obvious in pointing out how different it is from when he was working with Christine.
In fact, this is the first (well, second, counting David) instance in the book of Yoshinaka deliberately inverting the characters and situations of the original novel. It's an interesting experiment, and Yoshinaka's choice to carry it throughout the novel prevents a lot of situations from looking like tired retreads of clichés and makes them more interesting reading material than they otherwise might have been.
I would, however, like to see more specificity in Yoshinaka's prose. Her descriptive powers are in full force when she's excited about something, but too often her descriptions of non-central doings and characters are only vague sketches. Erik hears men talking about having forgotten something (but not what, or why, or any actual dialogue from them), or Melodie speaks to the commissioners of the work and gets information but manages to do it all without an actual scene taking place. This might be a valid choice if developed stylistically, but as it is it's merely a lot of telling the reader what's happening instead of showing it.
In another move that screams plot point (but that is actually going to be used for one later, sort of, so yay!), Erik and Melodie have to hide in a closet when they are almost caught trespassing in the theater and Melodie has a full-scale panic attack that confuses and irritates Erik (but doesn't overly concern him - all his compassion is apparently for animals only). It's very clear to the reader that she must be a claustrophobe from her behavior, but Erik doesn't get it, which as always makes him look less like an incredible genius and more like a putz.
I love that this chapter opens with a frank discussion between ladies about how fancy dresses inevitably get stained or torn at dinner parties. Modern writers often seem to have this weird idea that those beautiful beaded and crinolined and bustled monstrosities were like fairytale princess gowns, immune to life, but this was not the case. Most likely it's the glittering spectacle of period film costuming, none of which ever gets soiled or destroyed unless violence erupts, that lends us this impression, but Melodie and her boss are wryly accepting of the inevitable moment when some dude steps on the hem, sloshes wine down the front or the lady herself drops jelly into her décolletage. Nineteenth-century truths.
Of course, this is taking place in a scene where Melodie's employer just outright gives her an expensive fancy dress of her own out of the goodness of her heart, all of which is just a little too fairytale and heroine-centric. But it’s a cute and enjoyable little scene, and the author does make a point of letting us know that the employer’s daughter couldn’t fit into it so it isn’t as if she intentionally spent a huge amount of money on Melodie. (Come to think of it, a lot of this novel could have benefited from a more Beagle-esque fairytale quality.)
I spent a lot of this book wishing that it was just a romance novel on its own, not a Phantom sequel; so many of the things that don't belong in the latter would have been just fine in the former, and Yoshinaka's writing style (when not sighing in the throes of maudlin melodrama) is engaging enough that I would have preferred to see what she could come up with on her own. It’s far enough removed from the original story that there’s really no compelling reason it needs to be a sequel anyway.
Melodie needs this dress in order to go to the birthday party of a rich lady whose husband commissioned the piece she has been writing recently as a surprise gift. She isn't publicly admitting to having written it (a time-period appropriate understanding that ladies are not taken very seriously as professionals), but she's been pretending to be the go-between for the elusive composer, the fictitious Michael Blythe, so she merits an invitation to hear the piece performed anyway. Alas, at the last minute the pianist who is supposed to play it has her hand smashed in a carriage door, rendering her unable to perform but moments before the unveiling! Poor piano-player, sacrificed on the altar of Making Melodie Look Good and Get Noticed.
So of course Melodie plays it, which is important both because Erik is sitting outside thinking about how awesome she is and David is in the audience being confused as to what his ex-serving girl is even doing here. I love this chapter, however, and Yoshinaka’s writing as well, for giving David some development and backstory to explain his behavior: a rocky relationship with his father, a pattern of negative attention-seeking, jealousy of Melodie who was always considered a "better" child. It elevates him from his earlier status as irritating one-note villain to an actual character with motivations and emotions, and while I wish to god we'd gotten that before or immediately after the rape scene earlier (because let me tell you, if I weren't reading this book For Science I might have just put it down there and never found out that there was more to it), I'm still glad it exists at all. David still sucks, but now he sucks as, like, a person.
I also love that David's first emotional response to seeing Melodie at this party is jealousy, specifically that she was able to escape his family by getting a new job while he, as a member of it, could not. That's a powerful emotional image and one that helps add a little sympathy to David's character, which he needs to not be just a random committer of senseless cruelty. It’s also very period-appropriate for an upper-clas character like David who, feeling burdened and helpless in the family that rules his life, is jealous of a servant without having any real conception of the privileges that he enjoys and she never has.
I also love that, when Melodie goes out on the terrace for some air (and to give David the convenient opportunity to accost her, apparently), a statue of Apollo sits nearby, overlooking the scene. Again, it's an inverted scene wherein Erik is once again hiding behind Apollo, listening to childhood friends talking below him, but this time they are most decidedly not getting along and the situation has almost nothing in common, theme-wise, with the rooftop scene from the original story. In ancient Greek religion, Apollo is often given the epithet Panoptes meaning “all-seeing”, probably inherited from the original sun god Helios whose cult he mostly overwrote, and in several myths reports on secrets such as the abduction of Persephone to the other gods as nothing under the sun can be hidden from him, so he makes an especially effective symbol for someone hearing or seeing something others think is secret.
In case it wasn't already obvious, David is pretty much just Raoul in different clothes so he can be vilified. He's so much Raoul that Yoshinaka doesn't even pretend he's not, having Erik actually start upon first seeing him because the two men look so much alike (down to the unfashionably long hair of the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, in fact, which she takes the time to describe). The visual similarity isn’t necessary to get this point across, and mostly just seems confusing, leaving the reader wondering if the two guys are related or something; a better version of this would have been perhaps to have Erik feel like David is familiar not because of what he looks like but because he has the same trappings of wealth and fashion that Raoul had.
But anyway, Yoshinaka clearly wanted to have a retread of the original but recognized that Raoul was a pretty nice dude and that he’s already eloped with Christine by the end of the story, so she’s introduced a villain clone here so that we can read a similar-but-different scenario play out instead. She's done the parallel between the two men well, making it clear that this is not the original Raoul but rather an image of what he might have been, had he taken a different path or been born under just slightly different circumstances. And that's interesting, if, again, plagued by unnecessary explanation, especially in his earlier appearances.
Erik swears in French a bunch, but, for once, that’s okay. Not only is it reasonable - he's a Frenchman in an English-speaking country - but he actually uses more words than just merde!
Take note, however: Erik also has a stallion. BECAUSE HE IS A MANLY MAN AND MANLY MEN DO NOT EVER RIDE GELDINGS OR MARES, EVEN IF THEY ARE WAY WAY BETTER FOR RIDING. It's pretty funny to note that the spooked, rampaging horse from earlier was most likely a gelding or mare, whereas this manliest of stallions doesn't do so much as snort menacingly at anyone no matter how much bullshit Erik rides it through (and it is a lot of bullshit).
Yoshinaka decides to treat Erik's murders as the result of a sort of rage-induced fugue condition, one that he is fully aware he suffers from - a bit like Marvel's Incredible Hulk, but less green. It’s interesting, since it gives her room to experiment with Erik’s awareness of the condition and what he might do to mitigate or control it… but unfortunately it mostly feels squandered, since she doesn’t really get into it. It ends up mostly lost, an excuse to make his murders and violence “not his fault” without having to actually engage with anything. (It’s also more than a little bit ableist, as people who suffer from these sorts of disorders don’t need any more bad press than they already have about how murderers are all actually just mentally ill and liable to go off like a gun at any moment.)
Quick! What other common and incredibly cliched device do Phantom novels use to sympathize Erik? We've already covered animals, musical genius, and not really being at fault for murder, so the only thing left is...
Yes. Adoption of poor orphaned children. In this case it's a young boy named Peter, who, while not strictly orphaned, often escapes to Erik's house rather than dealing with his abusive father (for bonus points, said father is also the original owner of Sascha, whom he beat badly, requiring Erik to tenderly nurse the dog back to health). Peter is of course bright and personable and has no behavioral problems or noticeable trauma from growing up in an abusive home, and loves Erik (who is busily teaching him to read for free) and Melodie once he meets her. Peter is one of the few annoying stock characters who won't redeem himself later; he’s not important to the story and he’s not utilized especially effectively as a tool for sympathizing Erik.
In this chapter, Melodie apparently decides that all rules of society are over and asks Erik if she can move in with him (the better to work on her new commission, a very complicated symphony). Erik is scandalized and shocked, as he should be; this is Victorian England, where unmarried ladies living in dudes' houses is just not okay, and furthermore she's basically asking him to feed and house her for free. Especially since no real romance has yet developed between the two of them, this plan is from the moon, which is probably why he initially refuses.
Sadly, while I'm on board with his refusal, I'm not on board with the scene in which it happens, which follows the pattern, again, of every bad sequel ever. Erik's just so tortured by the idea that he starts "roaring" and then physically shakes Melodie and screams in her face. "Oh, no!" the narrative seems to say. "Look at poor, tortured Erik, driven nigh unto madness by the pain of what he cannot have! Pity him!"
No. Fuck that, narrative. In a book that (justifiably) sets David as a villain because he is abusive toward Melodie, how is it okay for Erik to do the same thing? Apparently because Melodie has glimpsed the depth of Erik's beautiful soul or some bullshit, which is shorthand for "there is no good reason, just go with it, please". One of the major reasons Christine rejected Erik in the first place was that he was abusive and frightening; the solution, if you want to have him in a healthy, escapist romance, is to have him have learned something and worked to become a better and safer person, not to give him a love interest who will just suffer through all that.
I do, however, appreciate that Melodie leaves after this conversation with her dignity instead of begging him to reconsider or throwing her arms around him in an attempt to heal his shattered soul. It’s a low bar, but she’s still a stronger character than most sequel stars. Sadly, she lost me again when, after Erik writes her a letter that basically says "I'm sorry I screamed at you and you can move in with me, but I'm warning you that even when I try to be a nice person I'm still kind of an violent asshole" she replies by writing back to say, "No, no! Be a violent asshole! I wouldn't want you to not be yourself in your own home!" Yes, you DO want that, Melodie, if you are also going to be living there! What happened to the sensible lady who moved out the last time someone physically assaulted her?
Yes, Henry, thank you, this plan is bonkers. Melodie is extremely irritated by his assumption that she must be sleeping with the guy or at least planning to, which is pretty ridiculous considering that she lives in Victorian England. That’s everyone’s assumption at this point.
I really, really wish Yoshinaka would stop telling the reader outright what she's doing. Yes, of course this situation is another inverted one from the original story, where it's Melodie moving into the Phantom's abode intentionally and of her own free will instead of Christine being kidnapped, but it really loses a lot of punch when the author sits down to say, "Did you get it?" afterward. It's not doing the story any favors and often comes off as condescending to the readers. If you have provided enough information, you need to trust the readers to figure out the subtext on their own.
It's obvious to everybody in the world that Melodie and Erik are going to eventually hook up, but Melodie realizes this here in a scene that involves way too much ruminating over whether or not she's in love with him. Authors in EVERY genre, can we please stop with the "Do I love him?" internal dialogue method of introducing romance? It's so very, very boring and tired. She's not attracted to him, but she is attracted to his music, so she must be attracted to him because his music is his soul. Apparently composers of beautiful music can never be irredeemable assholes, which would probably come as quite a shock to anyone who ever met Beethoven or Wagner.
It is confirmed here that Melodie is in fact claustrophobic after she has a full-blown panic attack when Peter suggests that she come down into the cellar with him. Erik figures this out at last when the panicky child summons him to help get Melodie to bed, and through discussion it is revealed that her fear stems from a childhood incident in which David locked her in a closet for an entire day. Predictably, despite the fact that Melodie stresses that they were friends at the time and that David was six freaking years old, Erik immediately enters a towering glass-throwing rage. Definitely when someone is having a phobia-induced panic attack, screaming and throwing things is the perfect way to make them feel better.
This is a pretty frequent phenomenon in Phantom sequels trying to sympathize him (Binkley and Whitehead did it, too); they want to make him look positive by having him violently hate and want to kill the villains, but in practice this just makes him look just as unstable and dangerous for the suffering person to be around. Not to mention that Melodie is the one having a horrible breakdown, but somehow Erik has decided to make it all about his personal feelings and not, you know, hers. (Also, the person he is screaming about wanting to murder here is a six-year-old boy. He doesn’t know about David’s adult sins. He wants to perpetrate violence upon a six-year-old who is being a jerk but has no concept of the actual harm he’s doing. It’s not sympathetic, is what I’m saying.)
A nice touch in this chapter, however, is the gift Erik presents to Melodie, a painting of the house and fields she currently lives in. Erik's just-unveiled and apparently unrivaled talent at painting is a tad silly, especially when it's harped upon so much, but the idea of presenting her with the means to see the world she lives in before her eyes fail completely is a sweet and poignant choice that does a lot more to make me like Erik than eight hundred puppies and children would.
This chapter, however, is a clusterfuck. Peter's dastardly father shows up while Erik is out and tries to take his dog back, but is hindered by the dog's own hatred of him and Melodie, whom Peter fetches to try to reason with him. Of course he won't be reasoned with and is randomly violent and villainous for no particular reason, and of course at some point during the proceedings he kicks Melodie in the chest and severely bruises her ribs (though it's worth noting that this is an accident, not an intentional act of malice; Yoshinaka's character is annoyingly stock here, but he isn't an absolute purposelessly evil sod).
Of course Erik shows up in time to ride to the rescue, because he’s The Hero Now that's what he’s supposed to do, but it's also interesting to note that he does so late; Peter is actually the one who incapacitates his father by coming to Melodie's defense, and Erik happens upon the two of them trying to lift the unconscious man out of the brook he's fallen into before he drowns. Unfortunately, the usual Inferno of Erik Rage bursts out when he discovers Melodie's injuries, and he all but strangles the confused and injured man to death in front of his terrified son.
I could put up with this because of the fugue thing, though I'm really not inclined to because it isn't described very compellingly. I’m not nearly as inclined to put up with Erik's rants about how Melodie is “his” even in the midst of an episode, because it’s not only presented as something that’s supposed to be titillating - he loves Melodie now and this is just his way of expressing it and swoon, I guess? - but also once again undoes a lot of the character work Yoshinaka is trying to do. Erik is supposedly a better person now; he recognized he was hurting Christine and let her go and now does things like helping strangers and adopting children and animals, but apparently he’s still 100% ready to go right back to his abusive pattern of viewing his love interest as a possession instead of a person.
And then I have to tap out when Melodie starts getting in on the "oh, pity noble Erik!" party mid-strangling. When she hears him laughing in the throes of murder, her first thought is not "oh my god what's happening" or "holy shit I need to run" or even "my god someone has to stop him from killing that guy", but rather a sudden maudlin bout of wondering who hurt him in his past to make him so violent and meditating on how the realization of his secret angst threatens to "break her heart". Not only is it tragically mistimed - he is in the middle of killing someone, in fact someone you just finished saving! - but it's also abuse-excusing, a way for her to put up with Erik’s violent behavior toward herself and others by saying it’s someone else’s fault. Yeah, being abused certainly contributed to this Erik’s problems, but he is now a grown-ass adult and is not excused from continuing to hurt others.
Melodie - and Yoshinaka - is also infuriatingly inconsistent about this, which is only applied to sympathize the violent Phantom, no one else. She doesn't wonder who hurt Peter's father, slowly expiring over there, to make him so violent and angry; she doesn't wonder who hurt David to make him lash out at her and others. There's a problem in this novel with excusing Erik's actions because he has been treated badly but not extending the same hand of clemency to everybody else, even when they actually need it (like David, who despite being pretty bastardly in his own right actually has familial cruelty on the part of his father motivating him to behave the way he does). ALL of these people suffer from trauma and mental health issues related to being hurt in the past, and they all need to find a way to avoid passing it on to others; and the fact that the author apparently gets that in regards to the villains but not the Phantom really makes it hard not to notice. It doesn't read as a lesson in treating others kindly; it reads like a lesson in Some People Are Special Enough to be Redeemed and Some Aren't.
Melodie forces Erik to later sit down and explain why he's strangling people and what his fucking problem is, which at least acknowledges that there IS a problem. I’d have preferred she get away from him rather than potentially putting herself in more harm’s way by confronting him, but I can appreciate that she has few options and also cares about the guy and wants to help. I would appreciate her telling him that it frightened her more if there were anything anywhere in her internal dialogue or behavior that actually backed that up, though.
Erik's discussion of how his mother was a "weak, submissive woman" really just makes me think of all the ways his behavior (domineering and dismissive toward every woman in this book) is, uh, well, there are some obvious lingering issues there. And blaming a woman for not fighting off people dominating or hurting her is always a bad look, man.
Oh, by the way, we have an inverted unmasking where Melodie caresses the Phantom's mask but fails to take it off. DID YOU NOTICE YET THAT SHE'S TOTALLY CHRISTINE'S OPPOSITE IN ALL THE WAYS THAT MATTER?
When Melodie succeeds in getting Erik to spill about his origins, we shift into a first-person narrative from his perspective for a while. It's jarring, and I don't think it really adds much to the story to have it told directly in his words, but it’s not insurmountable.
The backstory itself seems to be cobbled together from various previous versions of the story; in it, he is a French native (whither the name “Erik”, then?) who is sold to a traveling carnival by an abusive father when he's six years old, after which he is taken around as an exhibit. The label "Devil's Child" is clearly culled from the 2004 film, as is most of the description of the deeply offensively stereotypical Romani and their camp, but other elements, such as his violin-playing and escape under his own power, are more reminiscent of Kay's novel. Madame Giry as a girl is still the agency of his rescue, just as she was in the 1999 Forsyth novel and the 2004 film again, though in this case she saves him from police pursuit as he flees into Paris and then secretes him beneath the opera house. (For those keeping score at home, she has a new first name assigned to her here: Therese.) Most interestingly, Yoshinaka makes a point of saying that Erik left the opera house at some unspecified time and traveled the world before returning to live under it again as an adult, an awkward and not particularly believable choice but one that highlights her struggle to unite disparate versions of the Phantom's backstory into a whole.
Oddly enough, after all that business with Erik's uncontrollable rage fugues, Yoshinaka makes a point of telling us that he only killed once before the business at the opera house, and that it was an assassination of "a brutal and unjust man", so that's obviously all right because that guy probably didn't have any trauma in his past or people who loved him. Well, and also he killed people in self-defense, obviously. I am, however, intensely grateful that he owns up to the murder of Buquet and doesn't try to avoid blame for it, the honesty of which almost makes up for Yoshinaka's inclusion of those triple-damned imaginary ballet dormitories from the Schumacher/Butler film.
I find it absolutely hysterical that the first time Erik says Christine's name, there's an honest-to-god accompanying lightning flash and roll of thunder. It's too hilariously cliched to even be real. I think Yoshinaka is actively trolling me.
But, after that, there’s some neat stuff in Melodie's by-proxy forgiveness for Erik (not that he should need it after the first story, but whatever). She says that she was relieved by the end of his story, because she didn't think she could have forgiven him if he had killed Raoul. Not only is the recognition of Raoul not being some kind of secret evil wonderful to see for once, but her frank confirmation that such a thing would have been unconscionable is direct, to the point, and doesn't spare his squishy feelings. Once again, she's making decisions for herself and being forthright about it, and that makes me like her character in spite of the massive weight of cliches she’s struggling under.
There’s a nice push against expectations here: you would assume that Melodie is Erik’s love interest because she can’t see his physical condition and therefore won’t be repulsed by it, which is what all other versions of the story that have paired him with a blind woman have gone with. But Erik here allows her to unmask him and peer (albeit near-sightedly) at his face before her sight is actually gone, so that she not only sees it, she sees it very up-close and with a lot of detail. The description of the deformity is extremely visceral and doesn't try to pretend it isn't a big deal, which helps lend credence to his concern over it; in particular, it's once again clear that Yoshinaka is trying to combine the Leroux and Lloyd Webber versions together, keeping the condition confined to half Erik's face but including details such as a missing half of his nose that yawns into an open socket. It's not entirely successful, but it's a worthy effort.
It's kind of sad that Melodie has to outright explain to Erik that releasing Raoul and Christine was his moment of redemption, but at least her doing so lets me know that Yoshinaka gets it, as well as finally convincing Erik to recognize it himself. Better yet, when Erik puts his head in her lap and sobs for forgiveness, I was honestly glad when Melodie pointed out that there's no such thing as forgiveness by proxy and that she can't just forgive him and make everything okay to spare him from having to deal with his own emotional baggage. Fucking fantastic. Print these pages and send them to every Phantom author for reference.
While it seems contrary that a minute later Erik is glorying in how her acceptance of him repairs his broken life, the fact that Yoshinaka has gone to such trouble to make sure we know that these are different characters in a different situation makes the whole thing play out with few wrinkles. The original Erik might have died happily from a single touch, but this one needs to be accepted as a full member of society; again, he might as well be a completely new character, but he is an interesting one despite the diversion from the source material.
Another very important moment that I praised the author for occurred when Peter, absent for several days, turns up very wary and upset. He does not shrug off Erik's near-murder of his father or pretend that he is not very unsure and untrusting in the whole situation, and his childish demands to know that Erik will not harm his family again are welcome in a situation where it would have been too easy for an author to brush off the consequences by pointing to the misbehavior of the father figure. He killed this child’s father. Even if Peter is relieved that his abuser is gone, that doesn’t mean he can necessarily accept his murder or trust the person who committed it.
It turns out that Melodie was an orphan abandoned in Paris, found by Henry and raised as his daughter. Again, she is an inverted Christine, in a similar situation but with a living father figure. This explains how she grew up with David; they were both children in the house at the same age at the same time, he the son of the gentry, she the adopted daughter of a servant. It’s not surprising that they might have played together or at least been curious about each other, even if they probably weren’t educated together or given extensive access to each other.
Snort. For the debut of their new symphony, Erik buys Melodie a new dress. It is apparently "midnight blue", but its color "reminded her of twilight skies". I like to imagine that it actually oscillates over time.
It's notable that the gala performance opens with the overture to Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an opera about stealing slash liberating sexy ladies from their houses of sexy servitude; with David in the audience and apparently spoiling for trouble, the subtext isn’t hard to figure out.
David, as usual, is complicated. He appears to be sincere when he tells his friend that he only wants to talk to Melodie, making it seem that he doesn't start getting emotionally unstable until actually confronted with her. Though Yoshinaka once again insists on telling us all about it instead of letting it be self-evident, it's an excellent choice to play up David's jealousy of Melodie once again, this time because he's a rich man who is miserable while she's a poor nobody who is somehow happy. His behavior is textbook abusive - he waits for her to reject him before initiating violence, thus allowing him to make the situation "her fault". Compared to the often shallow or obvious characterization of many characters in this novel, David's psychology is surprisingly vivid and layered.
Though his blusterings and "is that clear" pronouncements to Melodie have been steadily working to make me dislike his pompous, threatening ass, Erik nevertheless shows up to save the day and rescue Melodie when her attempt to walk out on David turns ugly. He uses a nice Don Giovanni metaphor, comparing David to the titular character and himself to the Commendatore, which not only recalls (and inverts, again!) the Don Juan themes of Leroux's story but also allows readers to think lots of sexy bass thoughts.
Post-rescue, however, when Erik grabs Melodie and starts yelling at her for disobeying his instructions and going backstage where she could get caught by David, he's clearly over the line. His behavior may be motivated by concern (well, that and being angry at her because she made him worried and unhappy), she's just been abused by someone else and he's actively perpetuating that loss of control and humiliation that she was just subjected to. And, gloriously, she doesn't let him get away with it; she calls him on his orders, his temper, his arrogance and his violent behavior, and caps it off by saying, "You're just as bad as he is." She kicks him right in the metaphorical nuts and I love it, especially since I was saying the same things a few chapters ago. The book is paused for celebratory dancing.
But, groan, then we find out that David's friend Ramsey just happened to be in Paris in 1880 and just happened to be backstage at the fatal opera performance and just happened to see Erik's face as he dragged Christine away. Ah, yes, the wildly unlikely coincidence method of moving the plot forward. This book is giving me whiplash.
Goddammit, Melodie, don't start waffling now. He absolutely did deserve it and I kind of wish you'd tell him off again.
Yoshinaka paints a very vivid portrait of an abuser survivor’s emotional state: Melodie hates the helplessness and fear she feels when assaulted and is furious with David (and Erik) for forcing her to feel that way. It's a classic psychological response that, once again, highlights Melodie as having multi-layered and conflicting feelings that make her more interesting
I know I seldom say this about sequel chapters in which things get hot and heavy, but this chapter is great. It's spicy, it's romantic, and even though the characters only kiss and sleep next to one another, refusing to have sex, it's steamy enough in its depiction of repressed longing and passionate desire.
I also love that there's a geniune reason for Melodie's sudden desire to kiss Erik other than his burning hotitude: in reaction to her earlier trauma, she's trying to blot out the memory of David's sexual assault by intitating a pleasant sexual experience of her own. That’s also a common response to sexual trauma and I appreciate that Yoshinaka is sensitive about it.
It's a good call on David's part to tell Henry about Erik's probable status as fugitive murderer rather than anyone else. Not only is he likely to listen out of concern for his adoptive daughter, but it actually seems to be a halfway decent move on David's part, as he genuinely thinks Erik (as Michael Blythe, the composer) is Henry's cousin and that the family is unaware of his shenanigans. It's not fully altruistic, of course, because he's pissed off over Erik bloodying his nose and interrupting his tête-à-tête with Melodie, but it's layered and means more than just having the antagonist be villainous because that’s his job.
Henry's immediate reaction once Melodie confirms Erik's secret identity is an understandable one: he wants her to move out of the house she's currently sharing with the known murderer. Despite the fact that Melodie believes that Erik is reformed, she can't refute the very compelling arguments that Erik is dangerous and people have died because of his actions.
Of course, Erik is not helping anyone believe in his reformedness when his reaction to the news that Henry has found out about things is to punch the mantle repeatedly until he bleeds. This is exactly what everyone is talking about, man.
So Melodie does the reasonable thing and moves the fuck out, but gets a fairly nearby apartment so she can continue to visit and work on music together with him. It's an elegant solution that lets her calm her father's worries without giving up her independence, and it also lets Melodie make decisions and retain her agency while removing herself from a dangerous situation.
I'm not much of a fan of anything in this chapter. Though I appreciate that some work went into previously setting up her claustrophobia for this moment, I'm less than impressed by Erik discovering Melodie unconscious in her apartment, where she woke up, discovered that she had finally lost the last of her vision, and had a panic attack until she broke everything and fell over. Luckily, the characters are tender and sincere in their interactions, but even so the plot device is clumsy and maudlin.
In this chapter, swordfightings! David finally locates Erik's cottage so he can challenge him to a duel to avenge his own hurt feelings (and busted nose) in the previous debacle. It's again an inverted situation, this time paralleling the duel between Erik and Raoul added in the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, but with Erik as the defender and a distinct lack of polite behavior out of David (who, Erik even admits in his internal monologue, doesn't have the sense of honor that Raoul did). He wins, because this is the Law of Protagonists (and also maybe also to contrast it with the duel against Raoul that he lost), but lets David live because he is improved now and no longer murders people. It's actually handled well enough that it doesn't come off that tritely in the novel itself.
I notice a lot of woman-blaming in this novel, on both David's and Erik's part, much of which I think is probably subconscious. Language like "she haunted my thoughts" or "she made jealousy rise up in my throat" subtly suggests that the woman (sometimes Christine, more often Melodie) is the source of the emotional and mental turmoil of these men, making it in a sense "her fault". This is a very common kind of writing from male perspectives, particularly in the romance world, and I wish Yoshinaka had put a little more work into showing it for the victim-blaming attitude that it is.
Erik, still the master of terrible timing, confesses his love to Melodie, but only after first screaming at her and calling her Christine by accident. He's a smooth one. I love that Melodie doesn't do the harebrained expected and, instead of falling directly into his arms, primly points out that he should make sure he isn't just projecting Christine onto her and then goes right on living in her apartment and refusing to move back in with him. I mean, she’s right.
David is at this point finally disowned by his father, a move that he hadn't believed the patriarch would actually go through with and one that leaves him destitute and desperately unhappy. Though he uses it as an excuse to plan a final, crowning moment of malice against his perceived enemies, there are also especially poignant moments, the most touching of which is his realization that his girlfriend, Olivia, cares about him... but not enough to remain with the penniless pauper he has become.
Speaking of David dating Olivia and not Melodie, it's an excellent and unexpected choice in this novel that he really has no romantic or sexual interest in his one-time servant girl. Where most villains of his variety assault their heroines out of lust, David's fixation on Melodie has to do with his jealousy of her happiness and the perceived unfairness of her life as compared to his own, and his need to assert control over all that. It forces the reader to realize that he is at least as much of a fleshed-out character as the protagonists and prevents him from descending to the realm of cardboard adversity.
Are you ready for some more swapping? At the performance of the new piece by Michael Blythe, David crashes it and demands Erik's public unmasking, only to kidnap Melodie and start a fire as he escapes, thus neatly involving pretty much all of the 2004 film from the performance of "The Point of No Return" onward. He also flees with her to the roof instead of the cellar, illustrating his polar opposition to Erik yet again.
David also accidentally kills Henry in his haste to escape when the old man attempts to block his path, which pretty much clued me in that his fate was sealed and he wasn't going to survive to the end of this book (although that was pretty clear from the moment he lost his inheritance, really; his commitment to staying alive was already hanging by a thread before that). His progression from unpleasant employer to violent monster was done well enough that I have no issues with it, but I really wish we'd seen more glimpses of the happy childhood friendship between him and Melodie; it would have made the relationship (and its souring) more poignant, and feels like an element that fell by the wayside to make room for other things.
Having already lost basically everything in his life, David plans to commit a murder-suicide by killing himself and Melodie; it's an elegant move from his perspective, as it ends his own unhappiness, takes down too-perfect Melodie in punishment for always taking the love and attention that should have been his, and manages a big fuck-you to his father, who will be at the very least publicly humiliated and most likely also privately devastated. It's the culmination of decades of negative attention-seeking, in which escalating levels of misbehavior have finally driven him to make the ultimate gesture to get his father's attention. At this final moment, he also acknowledges his siblingesque love and hatred for Melodie, who he was never able to measure up to and who he always resented for her ability to please a father he could not.
Of course, Melodie is not able to talk any sense into David at this point, so once Erik arrives we are forced to endure silly overdramatic pushing of people off the roof, finally ending with David smashed to smithereens on the ground below and Erik wailing his sorrow that Melodie went over the edge first. Of course she caught a convenient stone protrusion, and of course she is rescued no worse for the wear except for some broken fingernails. The entire scene would have been much, much less irksome with a less hackneyed climax.
I'd make fun of Erik's timing some more when he proposes to Melodie's shell-shocked husk after the revelation of Henry's death, but it's not really his fault; she finds the ring in his pocket and he has to explain, so at least she finds something she can assert some control over.
Erik becomes Michael Blythe in truth with a little name change and they get married and all live happily ever after, except all the characters who are dead.
You can see why this book made me teeter between bored and dislike and genuine interest. It has too many hopeless plotting problems, cliches and hallmarks of amateur writing to really be any good, and I probably won't bother reading it again, but the author shows a lot of promise. It's a pity that I couldn't find anything else Yoshinaka's written, because I'd be willing to give her another try.