The Phoenix of the Opera (2007)

     by Sadie Montgomery

This book is a mess that occasionally achieves goodness.

 

Right off the bat, Montgomery demonstrates promising writing skill that will carry her through the majority of the novel in solid style. There's a nice lyrical flow to her sentences, clear signs of a good vocabulary and the understanding of when to use it without contracting Thesaurus Disease, and while there are bobbles including sentence fragments and accidental prepositional transposition (which is the most fun to say ever!), they are fairly easily overlooked in the overall decency of the prose.

 

This little prologue section is basically just a three-page retread of the Phantom's backstory from the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film, complete with mention of the fictional Opera Populaire (although, oddly enough, Montgomery will go on to use a lot of real operatic settings in Paris throughout the book and just sort of try to look at her toes embarrassed rather than ever acknowledging the mysteriously missing Garnier). The repeat of things that viewers of the 2004 film already know doesn't do much for us other than reminding me of the cruel twists of fate that somehow preserved a part of Forsyth's trainwreck as part of Lloyd-Webber-sealed popular Phantom lore, but for those who haven't seen the film, it gives just enough backstory to be getting on with things.

 

Montgomery is at some pains, before we even get into the novel proper, to try to convince the reader that the Phantom's extortion of the opera house owners "benefit[s] us all and harm[s] no one," which is the first stirrings of a determined sympathy campaign she will be helming in an attempt to get the reader to forgive the majority of the Phantom's sins so he can more easily fit into a hero role. Considering that the Phantom was extorting a very considerable sum that might threaten the livelihoods of not just the opera managers but also all the performers who depend on the place, she’s not doing much to really convince the reader, but nobody really cares about the poor managers' problems in this book.

 

Apparently Madame Giry rescued the orphaned Christine in this backstory and brought her in to live in her home. This is happening in tandem with the familiar tale of her rescuing the child Phantom from his tormentors at the carnival. How many kids does this lady just pick up off the streets, anyway? This does have the oblique effect of allowing Madame Giry to function as a hybrid of herself and Mama Valerius of Leroux's original novel, which gives her a little more room for depth and character motivation, which is always nice.

 

Remember that sympathy campaign? Long-time readers of these reviews will not be even slightly surprised to discover that Montgomery puts some energy into ensuring that the murdered Joseph Buquet is heavily characterized as a lecher and a creep and letting us know that the Phantom was entirely "sickened" by his behavior, in order to suggest that the latter's murder of the former is the act of a rescuing and heroic knight protecting the females fair of the opera rather than, you know, just killing a guy. It doesn't quite work (have we ever seen this work?), but it is refreshing at least that the Phantom owns up to the killing point-blank and admits that it was intentional.

 

Madame Giry's first name is given as Madeleine here, which we first saw used for her in Garza's 2005 novel. It's a descendent of Madeleine as the name of the Phantom's mother in the 1990 Kay novel, the granddaddy of many, many later self-published works, and appropriate since she is certainly functioning as his mother here, but I have to wonder if we're a few degrees of separation away by the time of this book. At what point is Madeleine as a given name for Madame Giry simply a part of the general soup of accepted "facts" about the Phantom story and repeated in derivative works without the context it came from, and how do we tell whether or not authors are borrowing from earlier works or simply repeating an almost folkloric convention? I don't have the answers, but I do want to run some statistics later on the cagematch brewing between adaptations that use Madeleine and others that use Forsyth’s Antoinette.

 

Speaking of names, by the way, the Phantom is named Erik here and will be referred to as such throughout the novel, in spite of it drawing most of its obvious inspiration from the Lloyd Webber versions of the story in which the titular character is never given a name. I think we can probably assume from various mentions that Montgomery has indeed read Leroux's novel, so it's more likely that this is a direct import than a case of fandom osmosis.

 

Chapter 1: The Fire

 

I never know how to feel about chapter titles. Sometimes they're ridiculously overblown and silly, as in the case of the aforementioned Garza novel; other times, they don't seem to be giving the reader much idea what is going on in the chapter and therefore feel like signposts for author rather than audience. I won't say I always hate them, but outside of classic childrens' literature from the turn of the century, I can't think of too many places I've liked them, either.

 

I wrote down here that Montgomery was indulging in some interesting stylistic experimentation, but that's not exactly true, after having experienced the rest of the novel. Erik makes his entrance as a narrating character with an obviously disorganized stream of unpunctuated consciousness, thoughts running into one another in full-blown Faulkner-esque confusion, and Meg's thoughts a few pages later are hardly any more coherent. I initially thought that the device might be used to illustrate Erik's obviously disturbed mental state and perhaps hint at a more in-depth exploration of his psychological problems, but it will continue as a repeated style for various different characters' internal thoughts as the novel progresses. 

 

For some, most notably Erik and Christine, it makes sense as a way to convey the jumble of mental confusion and post-traumatic chaos, but for others, including Meg, Raoul, and Madame Giry, it seems more intended to represent heightened emotional states and shifts of perspective from character to character. In the end, using it for all characters makes it a device that injects the private, emotional responses of various characters into the novel alongside their more considered actions and statements; in effect, it suggests that all people respond in a fundamentally similar emotional manner, and allows Montgomery to explore each person's internal journey without having to resort to boring "he thought this, she thought this" storytelling. It has its moments where it's more annoying than enlightening, but overall it's a solid choice that I really enjoyed.

 

We're setting up Meg as the Phantom's new love interest here pretty insistently; she is presented as having been (lovingly) jealous of the special attention and instruction Christine received while singing at the opera house and now seeking to put herself in the same position that Christine has so recently vacated. Of course, she obviously has very little demonstrated understanding of the trauma Christine underwent or the danger Erik presents to others, but her desire is well-drawn and curiously moving nevertheless.

 

This book feels like it has a slight continuum when it comes to the handling of Erik and his violent tendencies; early on, it appears that Montgomery is taking a no-holds-barred approach to his lashings-out and antisocial behavior, illustrated especially brutally in an anecdote about him murdering a beloved pet in order to traumatize a singer he didn't like into leaving the opera house. Combined with his meandering and occasionally distressing thoughts, we get a picture of him as intensely psychologically disturbed and dangerous, which is a nice change of pace from all the t poor-me-I-am-so-persecuted versions of Erik in self-published sequels. As the book progresses, however, more and more of Erik's psychoses are handwaved, excused by placing the blame elsewhere or conveniently forgotten, and by the end of the book he is presented as far more rational than he began. Some of this may be intended to illustrate Erik's extremely disjointed emotional responses to the events of the previous story, which occurred only a little while ago, but unfortunately there is little believable character growth to go along with it.

 

Also in pursuit of the much-advertised Erik + Meg = True Love ending this book is heading toward, Montgomery spends a little time here establishing that Erik also looked after and left gifts for Meg during the good old days, presumably out of gratitude to the elder Giry for rescuing him or possibly even some familial feeling with his "foster sister". Honestly, the sibling overtones are not heading toward the romantic swoons Montgomery was going for here, but while the idea is jarring when compared to Leroux's Meg, who had nothing to do with the Phantom (and wanted nothing to do with him!) or even the Lloyd Webber musical's Meg, who was scared to death of him, it follows fairly naturally from the 2004 movie and Meg's increased role as Designated Phantom Snooper.

 

When Meg descends into the cellars in search of Erik, his instant, unreasonable hope that Christine has returned to him is well-drawn and moving - arrogant but piteous, a moment of wishful thinking that even he doesn't really believe is happening even as he indulges in a few moments of wild fantasies about a future together. It's nice and refreshing that Meg is actually horrified by Erik's face - okay, yeah, so it's the Butler deformity, but at least her response is in keeping with everyone else's in that movie. Of course, she will still head off into Magical Acceptance Land later with no other mention of the issue, but an attempt was made.

 

Erik has some obvious dissociative problems here that make him unable to cope with the trauma of the previous story's events; he can't even see or understand Meg other than to register that she isn't Christine, let alone try to have a functioning conversation with her. He has an excellent stream of consciousness on 15 that really helps set him up as scene-chewingly distracted from reality:

 

"down into the black struggling to reach into the bottom of the pool Christine is there waiting her brown hair floating up toward me her eyes open wide and beseeching me I have to save her to reach her but there's a fire set under the well the walls and depths the surface of a cauldron and we trapped inside the water beginning to boil I can't breathe and her hair is not brown it isn't brown it isn't her hair it's blonde and the hands are too white and small and I drag her up toward the lip of the cauldron before our flesh is cooked off the bone Christine is at the edge of the well smiling at me as I drag the body to lay before her feet as an offering the face of the body is not Christine's the face is a hideous mask of tortured flesh I scream under the water and let loose of the hateful thing it sinks sinks sinks deep to the depths but somehow the darkness does not engulf that face it glows as if lit behind by the flames Christine wouldn't want to see it I must keep her from seeing it I must go back down to push it down and down and down into the dark"

 

That, my friends, is not a person who is in any way equipped to deal with anything right now. My excitement over really exploring an Erik this clearly and explicitly described with mental disorder markers was sadly mitigated a little while later by the revelation that he's apparently feverish and some of that is most likely hallucination rather than mental confusion, but I'm still really digging the vibes of The Phantom Has Real Problems, This Is Not a Drill.

 

Meanwhile, back with law enforcement, a group of people who are not at all cool with this "missing unpredictable murderer who just burned down an entire building full of terrified people" thing being swept under the rug, Chief Inspector Leroux is on the scene! This is an obvious callback to the original novel's author, inserting him as a character as several previous books have done (and can I just say that I kind of love that convention? It's like Stan Lee being in all the Marvel movies, except with a dead French guy who would probably be very surprised about it). It's probably also a nod to Inspector Ledoux, the hatchet-job version of the Persian who was featured in the 1925 Julian/Chaney film as the Phantom's most dogged pursuer.

 

Also entertaining here is a passing reference to a "half-man, half-ape" that is superstitiously rumored to live in the cathedral. It's a cute reference to Quasimodo, the title character of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the other major French novel about physically disabled people having problems with the rest of society; and, in a second layer of homage, possibly to Lon Chaney himself, who originated the film role of Quasimodo before he moved on to also play Erik.

 

It's very neat that Montgomery drops a suggestion here that one of the Romani folks who exhibited Erik in their traveling fair as a child might well have been his actual father. This was a question I had about the 2004 film anyway, as how Erik got into the carnival or where he came from was never addressed there. The carnival operators were definitely presented as dangerous "others" to the max in that movie, treated as a sort of race of dirty evil profiteers that were abusing the poor kid and therefore not developed or presented in any humanizing light, but there was no mention of whether he was related to them or a foundling they discovered/rescued/kidnapped/whatever. Considering that the Romani have suffered from a massive amount of racism and persecution throughout history, in France as much as anywhere else, Erik himself being Romani would afford an author the opportunity to explore that as at least part of the source of his ostracization and mistreatment. 

 

Montgomery doesn't go for it, unfortunately, nor does she address the anti-Romani racism in her source material. Considering the automatic treatment of Romani people as somewhere between mystical fairies and evil child-molesters throughout most Phantom literature, it would highlight an obviously rampant problem pretty well if she had. I’ll have to keep waiting for that elusive future work, I guess.

 

Christine's hair is here described as "dark ringlets", which lets us know it's based on Emmy Rossum/Sarah Brightman rather than Leroux's blonde singer. This is not surprising. If I had a bingo card for self-published Phantom sequel buzzwords, "dark ringlets" would totally be on it.

 

There is a lot of hopping between past and present tense here, mostly between the internal monologues and the action scenes, but oddly enough it mostly works. The personal moments are underscored and made more accessible to the reader by suddenly shifting into first person and present tense, while the flashbacks and incidentals in the more traditional third person past tense evoke a more grand operatic style to those scenes. It feels like the difference between recitative and aria, which is a nice feeling for a Phantom book.

 

While it is often irritating to read Lloyd-Webber-based versions of the story that blithely use Erik's name without in any other way alluding to Leroux's novel, Montgomery sidesteps that here by directly pointing out the fact that almost no one knows his name and forcing Meg to have to learn it through interaction rather than everyone already knowing it.

 

We learned Madame Giry's age here, which quick reverse math informs me means that she was 35 during the events of the previous story. I snorted thanks to the Schumacher/Butler base for this book - Miranda Richardson is a foxy and fierce lady at any age, but 35 she most certainly was not when filming that movie.

 

Probably Montgomery's worst prose habit is the use of random ellipses to stand in for pregnant pauses. This is a mistake. Trailing-off sentences, pauses where characters collect their thoughts, or other dialogue uses, sure. In the narration itself, especially in places where the pause itself could be described... not so much.

 

Meg catches Erik's fever from poking around in the cellars looking for him, and while she's passed out and he is trying to help her he sees blood, panics, and runs to find her mother to save her. I absolutely love his total ignorance of the possibilities of her body - he has no idea what menstruation is, which underlies his ostracization from society and his general ignorance and even fear of women, and it makes a nice change from the all-knowing magical obstetrician phantoms to have one who, in spite of being educated and intelligent, still doesn't know much about biological issues that would have been considered solely womens’ issues, as so many educated men of the time might not. He is relieved to learn that she is not actually dying of some kind of distressing fever-induced hemorrhage.

 

Chapter 2: The Singer

 

We jump over to Christine, and can I say that I love her in this book, both the fact that she's included as a character and that the intense psychological terror and manipulation inflicted on her in the last story is not ignored or glossed over? Christine has seen some shit, you guys, and this book pulls no punches in reminding us of it. (Well, until much later on, when it starts going hardcore Erik Apologism, but for a while it's nice.) Her stream of consciousness is almost as wandering as Erik's, allowing the reader to wonder whether she is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of what happened to her or because she was mentally unstable herself in the first place.

 

While the cliched "Raoul and Christine still live in town together" ending is here, the potential social issues of their remaining together in public are happily addressed. There's a really great examination here of Raoul, who acknowledges the usual mistress setup for patrons vs. chorus girls and does not demonize it, instead considering it a normal and even healthy part of life in the performing arts as most men of his era would. His initial stated intention to have that kind of relationship with Christine not only makes sense but also allows his evolution into truly being in love with her and being willing to cast his reputation and possibly even his fortune to the winds to be with her much more moving. There is also a very real question posed here of whether or not it was the intervention of the Phantom and the danger he represented that made Raoul realize the depths of his feelings for Christine, and a counter-question of whether or not he would have been content to be simply her gentleman lover if such events had never transpired. He has some real emotional struggles in the beginning of this chapter, as well as hallmarks of believable love, and overall I heart the entire messy stream of his thoughts.

 

Unlike various other versions that have insisted on making Christine a baffling amnesiac waffler instead of dealing with the consequences of her experiences, Montgomery also manages to paint a very able picture of her here, exploring her being torn between her fear of Erik and her desire that the deaths he caused receive justice, but also her reluctance to release her own childhood memories and the feelings they sparked in her by admitting that much of her time with him was based on deception.

 

Raoul has yet another great psychological moment: he feels like Erik "won" in their struggle in the last story, since it was Erik's decision to let them go, and it bothers him deeply that the Phantom was therefore able to cast himself as the hero of the story in spite of also being its villain. It would be nice if he wanted to extend any credit Christine's way (okay, I know Rossum's Christine basically stood there like a post for most of that scene, but she did do some things), but the examination of very real feelings of resentment, dissatisfaction, and guilt at not being able to save Christine alone already make this one of the most three-dimensional Raouls in this genre.

 

In another move that takes a trope I normally hate and handles it sensitively enough to be worthwhile, Raoul does place a moratorium on Christine's singing, but he does so not because he doesn't "get" art or doesn't want to "share" her with the absent Phantom, but because he is afraid that she won't psychologically recover from her ordeal if she continues the habits that it instilled in her. The subtextual notion that Christine's voice, even now, does not really belong to her but to Erik, is carried over from the original story with menacing force, and because it is something that is untouchable and comes from the Phantom himself, it is something Raoul can neither fight nor protect her from. I was reminded of the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film and Hohner's inability to handle Marcellina's glorious voice, although Raoul happily does not respond to it by going on a murder bender.

 

The potpourri of different writing styles continues here, where some of the story is told through the device of correspondence between Meg and Christine, which will recur throughout the book. Through Christine's letters to Meg, Montgomery does an excellent job of representing her complex emotions, including her love for Raoul and her concern for Erik together without slighting either for the sake of the other.

 

Chapter 3: The Canary

 

The white horse from Leroux's novel appears here, slightly renamed "Caesar" just to be a little more English than French for some reason. I'm not really annoyed, though - Montgomery has an excellent habit of including traditional elements from the Phantom story, but also textually acknowledging their implausibility, making it more of an homage to Leroux's work and less of a confusing scenario in which there is a horse just sort of living underground under a burned-out opera house.

 

Can I say how much I am in love with Giry's totally reasonable refusal to extend pity to Erik when his actions are endangering her daughter Meg? Star-struck Meg is totally pushing to gloss over Erik's murders, but her mom is having none of that apologetic bullshit, at least until her dialogue is cut short by Montgomery's need to get the plot moving, forcing her to give in to her daughter's demands to visit him. I wanted her to get to stick to her guns. You are so right, Giry. Don't let the author tell you you're not.

 

When Meg does get back down there, she is shocked to discover that Erik has apparently attempted to cut his own disfigurement off of his face, a terrible and touching moment both at once. There are shades of the 1989 Little/Englund film at work here, wherein the Phantom literally wore other peoples' skin over his own face and therefore tore faces off of himself over and over again, but even more interesting is the implied question of whether this has happened before. Is it possible that the Phantom's original deformity less severe, and that his attempts to remove it in despair over the years have continued to magnify and increase it? Leaving aside the improbability of anyone surviving those kinds of repeated shenanigans without good medical care, the idea that Erik could be actually constantly creating and worsening his terrible appearance is incredibly resonant with his agonized questions in the original story about whether it was his evil personality that created his deformity, or his deformity that twisted his personality toward evil.

 

I've been gushing a lot about things I love in this book, but I'm not sure I love Meg's sudden need to be a singer, which kind of comes out of left field. She's a ballerina and already accomplished in that field, at least according to the Lloyd Webber story this is mostly based on; nineteenth-century opera did not have the modern idea of the triple-threat actor/singer/dancer, and there would be very little chance a ballerina would ever be called upon to sing, or aspire to such a thing. I assume some of this is filtered-down influence from the Lloyd Webber musical, which was written for Sarah Brightman and intentionally conflated Christine's role as chorus girl with the ballet in order to allow her to use her dance skills, although I wouldn't rule out plain old confusion. At this point in Phantom lit history, Lloyd Webber's influence is so pervasive that many later writers take what he did as automatic gospel without realizing that some of it isn't exactly what you'd call accurate and considered.

 

At any rate, I'm kind of sad that we're spending so much time on Meg's singing aspirations here. We already did that with Christine, so nothing new or interesting ever happens with that side of things here, and the shift in focus doesn't make sense anyway. Being a prima ballerina would be every bit as prestigious and celebrity-worthy as being a soprano lead, possibly even more in the ballet-celebrity world of nineteenth-century France, and it would have been much more interesting if the Phantom had expanded his scope a little to teach her dance instead and given us more of an image of him as a source of artistic genius that is not confined to a single milieu.

 

Interestingly, Erik refuses to teach Meg, largely because the act of vocal instruction is so psychologically bound up in his emotions for Christine that he can't imagine applying it anywhere else (although I have to assume he would also be like, "you're a ballerina, what are you doing" somewhere in there, too). Meg's campaign to force him to teach her mostly involves making mistakes near him, because he can't help but correct her flubs thanks to his extensive musical acuity. It actually works pretty well for her.

 

Erik, still not doing particularly well mental-health-wise, frequently hallucinates hearing Christine sing in the abandoned, burnt shell of the opera house. It reminded me intensely of the 1937 Weibang/Shang movie and its 1995 descendent the Yu/Cheung film; both leaned heavily on echo symbolism in abandoned performance spaces, although there isn't much other influence from them identifiable in this book.

 

Jesus, Meg. Is there some good reason you capitalize He and Him and His when you're talking about Erik? You haven't been manipulated into thinking he's a divine power. You made fun of Christine when she said that. You need to chill out.

 

In fact, unfortunately, Meg is the weakest link in a lot of the story here. She doesn't get any real character development (aside from the beginning's "she's in love with Erik!" setup), and consequently her choices often make no sense or jar against the actions of the other, better-fleshed people she interacts with. When she's talking to her bestie Christine, who she knows was stalked, kidnapped by, and terrified of the Phantom during the worst phase of her life, and she happily invites her to not only be okay with the knowledge that Erik is repeating the exact same pattern with Meg now but also to show up at performances to hear her progress knowing he's probably lurking in the bushes somewhere nearby, unfortunately she sounds like either a dipshit or a really insensitive friend.

 

Erik says here that Meg's true talent is in dance and that she'll never be Christine's vocal equal even though she's a pretty decent singer. THAT'S WHAT I'M SAYING, Y'ALL.

 

Chapter 4: The Lover

 

I'm digging Christine's approach to music here, which has been a very large part of her life but is also very strongly associated with the traumatic events of her past. She's determined to make music on her own again, and knowing that the Phantom has influenced possibly every musical endeavor she's ever undertaken as an adult is trying her damndest to come up with and create something of her own, refusing to let his involvement dictate her life or her artistic choices anymore. It's a heartening portrayal of someone trying to take back ownership of their own passions, and I really enjoyed it.

 

Christine has a pretty great monologue on page 53, which I'm going to reproduce for you because I like to give you presents:

 

"Father, all the passion in the world seemed trapped in those notes. I don't know how I had the strength to resist him. Oh, forgive me, Father, I know he was a monster. Only our love, Raoul's and mine, was able to save me. But wasn't that proof, Father, of something noble, something pure in his soul, something the night had not yet destroyed? He had dragged me to his rooms, he had demanded that I put on a wedding dress and veil, and he had forced on my hand the ring Raoul had given me as a pledge of his love. He intended to make me his bride that very night, unwitnessed by man or God. How can I pity him? Oh Father, since the days you told me the dark tales of the north there were many stories of monsters, demons, and yet I couldn't think this man a monster. I still can't think him evil. Can love be evil? Can music be evil? Listen while I sing this to you, one of his melodies. Can anything that touches me so deeply be monstrous, Father, unless I too am monstrous?"

 

A bit of melodrama and a few technical errors aside, there are some great themes in here, the foremost among them the idea of evil in love and/or art. Derivative Phantom works often attempt to claim that since Erik creates such beautiful art he couldn't be evil, or that since he loves Christine his actions can be excused. But, of course, a person's love doesn't always prevent them from being abusive or dangerous, and a person's artistic ability doesn't prevent them from being a massive asshole. In a story about how physical appearance can have such a powerful effect on others, it's ironic that so many writers equate beauty (in a musical sense) with innate goodness. Christine's question at the end, asking if she is monstrous as well, is an excellent aside that highlights her own guilt for feeling pity toward someone who has hurt and killed so many, and her insecurity over her own art, which was inspired by that selfsame person and might therefore be tainted.

 

I also love that she's still talking to her father via prayer at his graveside; for some reason, most versions tend to have her forget all about dear old daddy once she realizes that the Phantom isn't him, as if nobody ever pays visits or attention to beloved dead relatives if they aren't somehow supernaturally contacting them first.

 

Raoul is being a controlling jerk here about Christine's desire to sing, but Montgomery handles it well and avoids villainizing him by continuing to allow us glimpses of his motivations, mostly having to do with fear of the psychological effects singing might have on his wife and later the very nasty shock of being told by a bystander that the Phantom may be stalking her again whenever she does it. This doesn't cure him of jerkitude when he won't let her do things, obviously, and it would be nice if he had decided to confront and ask her about the issue instead of deciding to also stalk her so he can protect her from the first stalker, but alas, nineteenth-century heroes always come with a big hearty side order of patriarchy.

 

As far as poor Christine goes, she's in the habit of imagining that her father responds to her and therefore didn't realize that the Phantom's voice was actually present on her trips to the graveyard, believing it was in her mind. Psychological effects of past events, indeed.

 

Erik is an ass, which is unfortunate because I'm always holding out hope that he'll be either A) reformed as in Leroux's novel, or B) terrible in a way that is in keeping with his previous behavior. Like many other books, Montgomery's tries to straddle the line in order to make him alluringly dangerous but still "good" enough to be the hero, and falls flat in the attempt. Erik's ranting about how "this time" that Christine spends at her father's grave is "his" and Raoul is daring to "take it from him" by telling her what's happening and taking her home is regressive, bringing him straight back to his behavior during the previous story, and creepy to the max to boot. Stalking a girl just to listen to her is creepy shit to begin with, but then being possessively pissed off that someone else tries to safeguard her is a pretty big red flag, dude.

 

It's a very nice touch here that Raoul, who has not heard Christine sing for a while, finds her voice every bit as intoxicating as Erik does. It gives Christine back some of the power and agency of her own voice, and suggests that whatever Erik might have taught her, her voice belongs to her and her alone, which is a nice message when she's standing next to the grave of the father who believed in her ability in childhood. It's a turnabout from the original novel's idea of Christine's voice as supernaturally crafted by the Phantom, but one I really like here.

 

While Erik's will-I-won't-I argument with himself over whether or not to just murder Raoul is not particularly encouraging - I'm sorry, did I hallucinate the really important scene at the end of the last story where you decided not to do that because you wanted Christine to be happy? are you someone else in disguise? - but his decision not to do so is, oddly enough, motivated by Raoul himself, when he sees that the other man is obviously in emotional pain from the situation as well. It's a rather lovely moment that illustrates that whatever his other backsliding faults, Erik clearly has learned some empathy since he has now gained the ability to realize that other people suffer similarly to himself. It would be nice if he ever had any empathy toward Christine, who far too often in this novel ends up being treated like some kind of attractive space alien rather than a person he should try to understand or have consideration for, but hey, I'll take it.

 

Christine actually gives birth now to her first child, who is adorably named Raoul after his father. I had to go back and do a quick search through all the archives, but y’all, I think this is the first time ever in the history of everything that Christine and Raoul have had an onscreen child together who is not secretly Erik's. It's a breakthrough! Their relationship producing offspring is in keeping with Montgomery's presentation of their marriage as a real and emotional bond between them; every other sequel to date has either kept the couple childless or made the oldest child secretly the offspring of the Phantom instead, both of which approaches are intended to de-legitimize Christine's marriage to Raoul and imply that it isn't important or meaningful. So this is not doing that, and that is awesome! Hooray!

 

You go, Christine, insisting that you be allowed to enjoy music at home! She delivers a lovely soliloquy here about her love for Raoul and her children and how she wants to share her gifts with them, and he finally gives up his misguided campaign to keep her aria-free.

 

Chapter 5: The Garden

 

Raoul gets mugged in this chapter. Poor Raoul. He's always either suffering or perpetrating a mugging in these books, have you noticed?

 

While I'm not a fan of using mugging as a plot point - it's pretty lazy and doesn't require the author to come up with anything beyond "I dunno, some bad guys and a bad thing that happens randomly, it's not important" - the scene is largely played out in order to give Raoul and Erik both some room to spark off of one another on the road to character development. Raoul is knocked unconscious after fighting off some of his attackers (as befits a military man), and Erik saves him from the remainder, a nice move to help cement his decision to support Christine's happiness with her family.

 

Raoul and Christine are apparently the Count and Countess de Chagny now. I don't know what happened to Philippe, whose death should probably have been mentioned when Raoul is giving us ample thoughts about all the reasons he hates and fears Erik, but I salute his memory.

 

Inspector Leroux is back on the scene, this time to investigate the mugging and try to bring Raoul's attackers to justice. Weirdly, a random sex worker on the street happens to have seen Erik rescuing him, and she seems to know who "the Phantom" is entirely on her own. Is this common knowledge, then? Is all of Paris looking for this dude, and when did everyone start deciding he was real, anyway? That's kind of a grey mess of un-thought-through background plot, but I did love the approach taken here that Inspector Leroux hates the real Leroux (unnamed) for his fanciful muddling of the truth with his sensationalized serial books. These kids these days and their newspapers.

 

Erik's mask is confirmed to be white here, but considering the amount of Lloyd Webber influence in this book, I would have been way more surprised if it weren't.

 

I totally made a little aww sound when Raoul asked Christine to sing for him here. It was sweet, they're obviously starting to heal from their ordeal, and the supplicant nature of the request (as opposed to Erik's commands for her to sing) is a nice contrast.

 

It was not nearly as sweet, however, when Erik went on an internal rant about how he "cannot see" how Raoul could be such a massive asshole as to prevent Christine from going to the graveyard where he knows she's being stalked by her incredibly creepy former kidnapper. Yeah, I also "cannot see" how he could possibly think that was a problem, or dangerous to her, or just plain bad news. Clearly, Raoul's just being selfish and trying to deny poor Erik his one hour of happiness per week.

 

In a confrontation between the two men, Erik brings up the fact that he saved Raoul from muggers and that Raoul therefore owes him and should let him stalk Christine if he wants to. Raoul's response? "My wife, dear sir, is not a trifle that I use to pay debts." BOOM. OWNED. GO HOME, ERIK, YOU DEFINITIVELY LOSE THIS ROUND. (This book just owned Love Never Dies from five years in the past, too.)

 

Things get a little messy on page 72 - a run-on sentence, a missing comma, a slightly clumsy callback to Lloyd Webber's lyrics when Erik complains to Christine that "You said I would not be alone," referring to her sung lines right before the kiss at the end of the musical. It's not too grating, which I appreciate, since Erik's giant speech about how hard his life is now most definitely is. Sympathy is one thing, but it's not Christine's job to fix you, dude. Stop stalking her at her home. That is never the solution to your interpersonal problems.

 

I am really not in love with how quickly Christine gets over the shocking revelation of Erik stalking her toddler-aged son in their own garden - AUGH he found a way to make it even creepier! - but I do love the excerpts from Shelley's "To Night" that they quote at one another. 

 

Chapter 6: The Mask

 

As should surprise no one, it's time for a masquerade ball! In a nice (if dramatic) line, Erik muses that a masquerade should always have at least one real mask in among the charade. As in Leroux's novel, the masquerade, where the rules of appearance and deception are different from the rest of society's, is the one place where he can go with little fear of being discovered or ridiculed.

 

Sigh. At the end of the last chapter, mere days ago, Erik promised Christine at her insistence that he would not come near her or her family. Apparently his memory is terrible, because instead he catches her at the masquerade and forces her to dance with him, knowing that she won't blow his cover and risk having to deal with the massive party-ruining and husband-frightening fallout of outing him. Annoyance at his backsliding behavior aside, I was mainly irritated by the scene's feeling of being out of place and unnecessary - it comes off as simply a retread of one of the popular scenes of Lloyd Webber's musical and doesn't seem to add much to the overall building plot.

 

And now... it goes to a bad place. Why do they always go to a bad place? Why is it always this place? I don't know, but I'm developing reflexive fear of any novel marketed as "steamy" as a result. I knew it was coming when Montgomery made sure to let us know that Christine and Meg were wearing the same costume to the ball, but it is still SO VERY VERY NOT OKAY when Meg, knowing that Erik has mistaken her for the woman he loves, leads him off into another room and has sex with him under false pretenses. It's clearly not an accident - he calls her Christine multiple times without her correcting him, and she refuses to take off her mask, a clear sign that she doesn't want him to figure out the truth.

 

And Meg, I get it, unrequited love sucks, but your response should never ever EVER be "I'll just trick the person I like into having sex with me even though they have made it very clear that they would be unwilling to do so if they knew what was going on". That's date rape, lady, and there is never any excuse for it.

 

To compound the awfulness of that scene - which Montgomery writes ably, including making it seem tender and sweet enough to both show us that the characters are both emotionally invested and underline the horribleness of the duplicity going on - Meg then runs into Christine crying after the event, seeking her comfort and reassurance about the awful thing she's just done. Poor Christine initially thinks that Erik has raped Meg, because her experience would certainly suggest that, and is even more horrified when she realizes that it was the other way around and that her best friend is not only way more horrible than she ever realized but has also now put her in the impossible position of having Erik, an unstable stalker obsessed with her in the first place, believe that she's given in to his advances and willingly initiated intimacy with him. The scene is ironic and sad, with Meg desperately attempting to get Christine to tell her things are okay. Things are not okay, however, and Christine promptly abandons her to go hide at home, which is probably what most of us would do.

 

Just... just BALLS, people. I know ahead of time that this book is supposed to be the blossoming of a beautiful new love between Meg and Erik, or something, but I cannot imagine how that could possibly work out now.

 

Erik, still just as confused as he was before the party but now on a new and unfamiliar endorphin high as well, has another touchingly awful moment in which he feels so good and hopeful that he almost succeeds in convincing himself that Christine's physical love must have "healed" his appearance. It hasn't, of course, but the idea is extended straight from Leroux's Erik and his need to have a living bride to force everyone to realize he was a real person and part of society, and is put in a refreshing light here.

 

...I could really, really have done without the end of this chapter making me hear all about how Christine's overwhelming response to Meg's perfidy is jealousy that she got to sleep with Erik when Christine herself never has. Montgomery is still good at characterization, so it's believable enough, especially in light of Christine's traditionally torn feelings and Erik's position as representative of sexual power, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the whole gross situation down from one person impersonating another in order to rape someone to just two women being jealous over one dude.

 

In fact, while people do freak out when they find out about this later and there is an appropriate amount of drama, at no point will the violation Meg inflicts on Erik here be discussed much. Everyone is mad at her for lying and for breaking peoples' trusts, but the actual act of rape itself is glossed past. The unspoken subtext is that Erik probably has no problem with getting any sex from any lady, even if it wasn't the one he wanted, which plays into the disgusting idea that men can't be sexually assaulted and is goddamned nasty.

 

Chapter 7: The Viper

 

Erik has a pretty predictable mental meltdown once the afterglow subsides and he realizes that he has A) slept with a woman he promised to stop stalking, B) potentially ruined her family life, and C) gotten his physical grossness all over her and therefore made her "impure", all pretty classic Erik-style problems. He won't say exactly what he's upset about while striding around in his lair ranting, which nets us a great internal anxiousness from Madame Giry, who is overhearing this and is like... he's a torturer and kidnapper and has killed at least eleven people, how bad could this possibly be for him to freak out this badly and should I move Meg and me out of the country now or wait?

 

Unfortunately, Erik's slide back into the abyss from which we thought he had grown in Leroux's novel continues. The oldie-and-baddie trope of "we slept together so therefore she belongs to me forever" comes out of the gate almost as soon as he starts thinking about it, and he has also magically forgotten all about the fact that she has a family now that he's seen her boobs. Erik is not exactly up on social graces, which is understandable, but even so I feel like he could probably grasp the basic idea that just because someone bangs you does not mean they necessarily want to live with you forever and ever amen. Christine has not exactly been subtle about her whole "do not come to my house, I do not want to be around you" stance.

 

This is where, if you are of delicate temperament and not already scared off by the previous scene's awfulness, you probably want to depart the book and/or this review. When Christine doesn't contact him or come to find him in any way for a while, Erik becomes bitter and angry that she apparently "used" him for sex... and decides to rape her as punishment. He assaults her in her own garden, drags her into the woods, literally rips her clothing apart, hurts her and gropes her, and the entire scene is majorly horrifying, which is of course made even worse by the reader's awareness that Christine had nothing to do with the event that Erik is currently responding to. Not that it would be okay if she had done what he's angry with her for. At no point would this ever be okay. And thankfully, Erik realizes that at the last minute, or at least seems to, because he backs off before actual penetration and runs away, leaving her massively traumatized where he left her.

 

This is one of those places where the storytelling is doing an excellent job but also shooting itself in the foot. Do I believe Erik would do these things? Absolutely. Montgomery does a great job of drawing his emotions, following his leaps of logic and obviously dangerous emotional breakdowns, and explaining to us exactly why he's doing what he's doing and how it makes sense in his twisted mind. Is there then any possibility that I'm going to want this guy to end up getting the girl and a happy ending? Holy FUCK, no. I want him off the streets, away from people, getting psychiatric help, being punished for his crimes. About the last thing I want is for anyone to tell him everything is fine because he's had a hard life and therefore he can have a consolation girlfriend and a ticket to freedom.

 

Montgomery has given me a complex and layered villain here who is pitiable and sympathetic while still doing things that are utterly reprehensible. Unfortunately, that guy is not in the same ballpark as being a romantic hero in the same book. UGH.

 

Christine somehow manages to conceal the attack from everyone; after all, she knows what motivated it, and aside from screaming at Meg or sending more police out to find the Phantom, which they've failed at every time, there's very little she can do about it. Poor Raoul is just very confused, because she starts having panic attacks any time they attempt to be intimate, which has never happened before and which she claims there is no reason for. Fortunately, he is not a giant bag of dicks and is patient, kind, and does not force her into sexual situations, because thank god at least someone in this book is not a rapist. Christine herself is afflicted by the ongoing and totally justifiable terror of the fact that Erik might just show up and go for it again at any time, and that there's almost nothing she can do to avoid or escape him.

 

Meanwhile, back at Underground Asshole Theatre, Erik is doing a lot of self-excoriation over the fact that he just violently sexually assaulted someone (GOOD) and finding lots of ways to blame it on her instead of himself (BAD). On page 95, he rants:

 

"He had transformed into a wild animal. With teeth bared and claws extended, he had thrown the woman he loved onto the ground, eager and ready to rape her. All those years of restraint, of self-denial, of control and he had abused her in that filthy way. He had used his strength to harm her, to shame her, to treat her like a common whore. And in this madness he had defiled the only pure and noble thing in his life, his love for Christine!"

 

ARGH. Do you know how tired I am of the shorthand of "good women don't deserve to be treated like whores"? Because the answer is SO TIRED I MIGHT BLINK OUT OF THE GODDAMN UNIVERSE. It's gross that Erik assaulted Christine, and it's equally gross that he thinks there are women in the world - i.e., sex workers - who deserve to be treated that way, and it's triply gross that the author does not in this passage appear to be aware of the general rampant grossness. How much or little sex a woman has or why has no bearing on whether or not it's okay to assault, abuse, or rape her because those things are point-blank never okay. Setting Erik's regret up to be "I assaulted a pure woman!" instead of "I assaulted a person!" not only lessens the impact of his crime for the audience, it implies that it could have been Christine's own fault if she had happened to actually sleep with him, or anyone else for that matter.

 

I can appreciate that the issues of purity, symbolized by Christine, and corruption, symbolized by Erik, have carried over from Leroux's novel here, and that both being linked to sex and personal virtue are totally ideals that the nineteenth-century characters might espouse. I just can't appreciate the author tacitly agreeing.

 

Christine, once she has her wits about her enough to handle it, writes Meg a pretty awesome letter, in which she tells her straight up that what she did was horrible, it had horrible repercussions, and she is not going to sugar-coat any of that for her one-time friend. I could do without the line where she blames Meg for "awakening" Erik's lust - what Meg did was way inexcusable, but that doesn't mean Erik gets a pass for his own choices as a result - but she ends the letter with an excellent line that illustrates her understanding of how deeply unhealthy Erik's obsession with her is: "What love is that which attacks and tears what it loves?" (And hey, Meg, you are not immune from the moral of that question, either.)

Chapter 8: Revelation

 

SIGH. It had been hinted at strongly enough in Erik's sex scene with Meg and later the rape scene with Christine, but it's confirmed here that the reason he stopped assaulting Christine was because he realized that she wasn't the woman he had previously had sex with, since she lacks a mole on her collarbone that Meg has. While this helps move the plot toward Erik figuring out more about what's going on, it unfortunately also robs him of the only vague glimmers of decency he had going for him; it makes it clear that he didn't stop in his attempted rape because he realized he was doing evil, but rather because he was doing evil to a different person than intended and therefore needed to revise his do-evil schedule.

 

His follow-up apology to Christine once he realizes he assaulted her for something he didn't do fails miserably, for obvious reasons. "I'm sorry I tried to rape you, I thought you had hurt my feelings," is no apology at all, and Christine probably wouldn't care even if he had managed something closer to actual repentence.

 

His response is to attempt to commit suicide via Raoul, which is confusing for Raoul since he still has no idea what's going on, and therefore fails when he's like, "Dude, I'm not just going to stab you to death in the street no matter how much I don't like you, what the hell is happening, I'm calling the police."

 

Chapter 9: The Confession

 

Like most other policemen in Phantom stories, Inspector Leroux is tired of everyone's shit. Which is, you know, reasonable. The shit's getting pretty deep. He may not be able to find his offices anymore.

 

When the police chase after Erik ensues thanks to his half-hearted assault attempt on Raoul, he flees to a convent and runs into the Mother Superior there, who hides him from law enforcement. She's an obvious maternal figure, something many sequels and rewrites add to give the Phantom more social context. I mean, "Mother" is in her name. It's really obvious. Also, the scene could not be more directly ripped off from another famous French story, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and its scene in which Valjean is rescued from the law by a kindly old priest who hides and then vouches for him.

 

Hilariously, when the old woman points out that his mask must be uncomfortable and he should take it off and he tries to fire back by saying that it's no more uncomfortable than her nun's gear, she responds by basically saying, "Nice try, but these clothes are basically the worst so your comparison has no effect on me."

 

Thank you, Mother Superior, for saying what I always say: that there are plenty of people at least as ugly as Butler's Phantom in Paris itself and the wide general world as well. Seriously. There was just a war. A lot of people are suffering from pretty grievous permanent injuries. The deformity is fully described on page 113 again, by the way, confirming that it's textbook Lloyd Webber and has very little of Leroux's death's-head about it.  This does not in any way make Erik's struggles invalid, of course, but it's necessary context whenever the idea of him as the only sufferer of this issue in the world comes up.

 

I found it very neat here that Erik did not know how to play the game of chess and had to be taught by the Mother so she could play with him. It's always refreshing to see an author who presents the Phantom as intelligent and even genius-level in some areas, but doesn't feel the need to therefore make him a savant at every intellectual pursuit known to man to prove it. Besides, who would he have played chess with? The rats? (I would totally believe that of the Phantom from the 1998 Argento/Sands movie.)

 

More disgusting racial stereotypes regarding Romani people abound again here, again inherited from the 2004 film and its execrable ancestor, the Forsyth novel. May it burn a thousand times and still never know death.

 

I like the themes of religious absolution going on here, although the Mother Superior is playing pretty fast and loose with religious canon here. Last time I checked, murder was still way a Deadly Sin, ma'am.

 

Chapter 10: The Descent

 

Why do the kids always have to die in these books?! THIS is why we can't have any nice things! Do authors just not know how else to have all the characters get emotional and traumatized other than murdering off their offspring? Alas, poor Raoul Jr. We did not know you very well at all, and now you've been drowned in a bog.

 

Christine's catatonic grief at the loss of her son is very poignant, and Raoul's despair at losing not only his child but potentially his suddenly unresponsive wife as well is stirring and effective for the reader. Unfortunately, we don't get to concentrate on them much because GOD DAMN IT, ERIK, ARE YOU SERIOUSLY USING CHRISTINE'S CONDITION AS AN EXCUSE TO KIDNAP HER BECAUSE SHE "NEEDS YOU"? I think what she needs is probably not to be separated from her family and support net by a man who recently tried to rape her in the woods, not to mention has a history of violent and frightening actions taken against her. Erik sends a note to Raoul to inform him that he's taken Christine, and it practically oozes self-serving bullshit, from implying that Raoul should stop being a jerk and "rejecting his kindness" to claiming that Christine went willingly when we are all aware that she is fully catatonic and unresponsive to threatening to kill her to promising that he'll totally abide by her choice of where she wants to go when she gets well, because he did SO WELL with that last time.

 

We get confirmation a few paragraphs later that Erik's version of "she came willingly" just means "the catatonic woman didn't struggle or say no". I’m going to shoot this man with a bazooka.

 

Chapter 11: The Bride in Hell

 

Much as I am exhausted by Erik's complete assness, Montgomery is still keeping me hooked with Christine's internal journey, which is moving, rich, and unexpected in all the right places. Her death-shock over losing her son causes her to feel like being underground with Erik makes perfect sense; he is death, she begins to deliriously realize, and that's what she's entitled to now, preferring it to having to live with her grief. She is expecting, even hoping, that he'll kill her, which she thinks of as "taking her to her son". We have successfully come full circle from Leroux's novel; after all the events of the previous story and the next, Christine once again cannot conceive of Erik as being anything but a scion of the dead, as far removed from the living as her lost boy.

 

Conversely, Erik is of course trying to convince Christine to live, which he is terrible at but keeps gamely attempting. For him, doing so would prove that it is not only death that he generates, that he can create and sustain some form of life; and, as always, he still needs her to act as the proxy for the life he will never have himself. I'm normally pretty pissy about being plunked back into the middle of Leroux's novel in terms of character growth instead of moving on, but Montgomery does a good enough job with it that I don't mind it here.

 

We also discover here that Erik is writing a new opera, entitled The Phoenix. Is the rebirth imagery supposed to refer to him, and if so, in what way? Is he literally arising from the ashes of the burnt-down opera house, or is this some other metaphor? Is someone else the phoenix? Does this count as a Greek mythology theme? Frankly, I have no idea, because nothing seems particularly solid. Discuss.

 

I love love love this next scene, in which Christine, finally responding verbally to Erik, demands that he kill her. His shock and automatic refusal is in large part due to the fact that she is so "direct" and "cruel", calling him out on all the lives he's taken, pulling no punches about the fact that she would much rather die with her son than live with the Phantom, and generally taking the active and dominant role in the conversation, seriously disorienting him. Erik has not really had direct and serious conversation or contact with Christine for any prolonged period of time since she was the half-hypnotized young woman that he had thoroughly lied to and terrorized, and the shock of realizing that he no longer controls her and that she is 100% done with all of his bullshit is uplifting to read, even when it comes from a place of Christine's utter sorrow. She continues the trend by, when he tries to dominate her into doing his will by screaming, "Sing, damn you, sing!", directly calling him out on his behavior and flipping it back at him by pointing out that every violent action he takes only proves her perceptions of him.

 

Unfortunately, triumphant though Christine's strength of will is here, Erik is still completely incapable of accepting a reality that doesn't do what he wants and does not react well to it. His desire to be an important person in her life - as much of an emotional center for her as she is for him - is utterly shattered by the realization that she thinks of him as a monster and a bringer of only death and horror, and the realization that his behavior only confirms this for her leaves him floundering and desperate to find a way to blame her for it instead of himself.

 

It shouldn't be a surprise that Erik responds to emotional distress with violent horribleness, especially after the earlier rape scene, but it's still shocking for the reader when he drags Christine out into the underground sewer network of Paris and into the catacombs beneath the church where her son was buried, and then tries to force her to open the coffin and look at her son's corpse, shouting at her and physically shoving her into it until she collapses in hysterics. He then frames the situation as her own fault because of her "fascination with death", because he is still running for Mayor of Dicktown.

 

As a side note, I can totally swallow that the Opera National, where Meg is now performing after the grisly demise of the Opera Populaire (thus establishing that both the Garnier and the Populaire exist in the same universe in this book!), has its own share of cellars and tunnels beneath it, but I'm having trouble believing that it also has secret panels in all its dressing rooms. That's not actually something that tends to come standard with opera houses, y’all.

 

When Christine is understandably pretty freaked out that she thinks he might do to Meg what he did to her, he flips out on her. His entitlement issues are off the fucking scale, as evidenced by this quote from page 151: "And why am I not allowed to want? To desire? Why am I forbidden the pleasures of the flesh that any other man enjoys as his due?" Gee, Erik, I don't know - is it possibly because you're a murderer, attempted rapist and massive liar who is screaming about "his due" to a woman he sexually assaulted? He appears to be unable to separate having physical desire from therefore being entitled to inflict it upon the bodies of women whether they like it or not; and while that's something that he might be unhinged enough to believe, hoo boy, I really hope he dies in the cellars somewhere soon so that the ladies of Paris are marginally safer.

 

No, Christine, don't ask that bag of assburgers to forgive you. His hurt feelings don't justify any of this behavior, no matter how shitty people have been to him because of his appearance.

 

Chapter 12: The Prisoner

 

In contrast with Montgomery's usual style, the beginning of this chapter is weirdly rushed and flat, heavy on telling us what's going on - an attack in which the police capture Erik - rather than showing us, and moving at light speed. Even conversations are simply narrated in "he said, she said" style instead of any dialogue being present, which makes the whole thing weirdly dissonant with the rest of the book. It feels like Montgomery either didn't want to write this part and tried to skip it as much as possible, or wasn't sure what to do with action scenes other than shoot past them as quickly as she could.

 

A lot of effort is put into trying to sympathize Erik through the vehicle of police brutality when the officers who capture him beat him severely and laugh about his deformity. This, too, is not nearly as well-drawn as the rest of the book, resulting in cartoonish stock dialogue and actions that do not feel particularly believable, and Inspector Leroux has somehow suddenly become shockingly evil, punching the prisoner in his already broken arm and demanding he confess to crimes he knows he didn't commit, giving us a truly weird legacy for the old author of the original book. The device of inserting a much worse antagonist to make the original villain look more sympathetic is clumsy and obvious, especially since, as in the mugging, these guys are all throwaway characters with no dimension or purpose but to be randomly cruel to Erik so we'll feel bad for him.  (It's especially annoying because people who have physical deformities and mental illnesses are often mistreated by law enforcement, and it's presented so poorly here that it feels farcical.)

 

Erik discovers that it was Madame Giry who turned him in and is shocked and confused, which in turn confused me. Isn't that exactly what she did at the end of the 2004 movie this is based on, not to mention the Lloyd Webber musical? This is not the first time she's realized you were totally off the rails and tried to call for help to stop you from hurting people, and the fact that it's her own daughter who's in the line of fire here should only make sense when considering her actions.

 

And now... thumbscrew torture. Seriously? Is it still the seventeenth century? Thumbscrews were still technically around through at least the French Revolution, but seriously? Napoleon goes to all that work writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and Inspector Leroux just pees all over it.

 

As if we didn't cover this enough at the beginning of the book, Montgomery trots out the excuses for the murder of Buquet again here, claiming that he deserved it for his lechery and adding a quick new aside to imply that he might have coerced a girl into sexual acts. As usual, it certainly makes Buquet look like a horrible piece of shit, but is not really successful in trying to sidestep Erik's murder of him (and is intensely annoying because I really don't want random female characters randomly assaulted just so an author can have a reason to justify someone's behavior). The only mention of the other murders, which include at least seven people crushed under the chandelier during his monumental tantrum at the opera house, are completely rushed past, with only a brief aside to let us know that he "truly repents" them. Well, that's nice, but if murderers could get out of punishment by saying they truly repented, the number of victims would skyrocket.

 

Erik's running hurt and panic over Giry's betrayal is a clear parallel to the idea of him being abandoned by his mother. It's especially interesting and poignant because, on the other side, the reader is aware that Giry betrayed him precisely because she was fulfilling her role as mother and protecting Meg from the danger he represents. Giry not only confirms this to his face, she also does a pretty good one-two punch to his feelings when she points out (accurately) that even if he wasn't intending to do anything evil to Meg, he's only using her because he can't have Christine.

 

Of course, Meg slaps and disowns her mother for this. Such is the behavior of teenagers in love.

 

Meanwhile, back with people who are not the worst ever, Raoul is shocked and appalled (not to mention justifiably confused... I'm with you, buddy) about the torture being perpetrated on Erik, and it is semi-satisfactorially explained when he presses for a justification that Leroux's motivation for doing all this is to get Erik to confess to all his unsolved cases and therefore secure a political promotion for himself. Honestly, it seems like that would not be massively believable, all things considered, but we're in the realm of mostly purposeless antagonists now. And speaking of purposeless antagonists, Erik is now being subjected to thirty lashes and Leroux is gloating about how he can "sentence" him, and the Napoleonic Code is weeping into its beer.

 

Raoul is not exactly equipped to take on the police force (and let's be real, he does not want Erik back on the streets and it's hard to blame him for that), but he does use his political influence to write and publish several articles condemning cruelty to prisoners, eventually succeeding in at least shutting down the "freakshow" in which officers were allowing the public to come gawk at Erik during business hours. (Yes, I know, it's gotten bananas and nothing makes sense, just power through it.) He eventually manages to put enough pressure on law enforcement that better treatment is secured for Erik and a lawyer is procured for him. Erik, of course, automatically assumes that Raoul is there to gloat and insult him whenever he happens to be about the prison; there's some speculation to be had about whether he actually thinks Raoul is that kind of a dude or is just projecting what he would have done in his place.

 

In spite of the circumstances and an increasing level of writing flubs, Raoul and Erik eventually have an almost touching scene of reconciliation, in which, with Erik on death's doorstep, they decide to put all rivalry and pain aside and part peacefully. Erik's relationships with women are massively goddamn toxic in this book, but his relationship with Raoul is oddly complex and interesting.

 

Because we've kind of already gone off the deep end, a plan is now hatched to get Erik and Meg married via prison shotgun wedding before he is executed in the very near future. The literary echoes of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet don't quite make up for how weird all this is, especially with Madame Giry now helping (?!??!?) and Raoul impersonating a guard and... look, it happens, we're close to the end, let's just go with it.

 

Chapter 13: The Trial

 

Brutal. Even after all of Erik's heartfelt rhapsodies about how great Meg is and he wants to give her what's left of his life, he still dreams that night that it was Christine he married instead. Meg ain't no prize, but even she ought to realize she's not going to make it to first-in-his-life status.

 

Reading the end of this book is a bit like watching a performance of something called Friendzoned: The Musical. Erik loves Christine, but she won't love him! Woe! Meg loves Erik, but he won't love her! Woe! Everyone commits rape, because of the tragedy of their lives! Feel bad for them, readers! 

 

Gotta call some massive bullshit on you, Meg. It is in no way Christine's fault that Erik can't get his shit together. She does not "stand between" you two being happy together, and he's not powerless to stop being obsessed with her because he "senses" that she has feelings for him. Christine is not the problem. Erik is the problem. He is like every goddamn problem.

 

"We made love. He made love to me in spite of his love for you. He's mine. I love him, and you can't have him, Christine. You can't have them both." Oh, for god's sake, Meg. Please just leave. You are so massively toxic that I want Christine as far away from you as possible or she's never going to be able to recover. You are so disappointing.

 

Inspector Leroux is the face of ugly classism here; he overtly derides Erik for his lack of social stature, which is of course the point that Author!Leroux was making in his novel in the first place. It's at a brick-to-the-head level of subtlety, but still kind of nice, since this book really isn't about that.

 

Reyer's testimony at Erik's trial is very weird. He's super sympathetic to the Phantom but with no explanation as to why, even to the point of trying to suggest that he didn't mean to hurt people with the falling chandelier (are you serious? what do you think he meant to do, give them a jolly little startle?). As one of the people terrorized by Erik's actions in the past, I'm not sure what Montgomery is trying to do with him here, unless she's trying and not quite succeeding to suggest that the people of the opera house itself are sympathetic toward him and it's only the evil outside world that isn't.

 

Chapter 14: The Sentence

 

Erik is sentenced to death in a totally rigged court, as we all knew he would be. I won't lie: I was super conflicted by this point. Erik's clearly unstable, violent, and horrible in way too many ways to ever be let free, but he's also clearly functioning as an example of the little guy being crushed by the system. What I really want here is a mental institution and serious professional help for him, which is also pretty much what he needs.

 

Raoul and Meg now sneak into the jail, disguised as a monk and an altar boy, to help Erik fake his death at the execution so they can later smuggle him to safety. It's thoroughly ridiculous, but we're at a level of pageantry in the novel at this point where it almost works just because it's become clear that disbelief should have been suspended eons ago anyway. And besides, I don't think any reader at this point is actually concerned that Erik is going to die in a few pages. Montgomery is not being subtle about implying that he'll be fine.

 

Raoul pulls this off through the power of money, enacting a massive chain of briberies. SuperMoney to the rescue!

 

The device of Erik concealing a small contraption that basically prevents strangulation at his hanging is clever and in line with the original character's semi-magical tricks and traps, although it's somewhat undercut by the fact that Raoul and Meg gave it to him and he didn't come up with it himself. The irony of the fact that Erik, master of the Punjab lasso, is about to be killed by hanging is bewilderingly swerved here; you would think Montgomery would want to give that one a bit of a look, but it sails on by with nary a mention. There is, however, a good moment on page 207 when Erik himself recognizes the irony of being hanged, unmasked, by an executioner in a mask who gets to be normal every other day of the year, and when his psychological relief at having the execution mask placed over his own head is palpable to the reader.

 

Chapter 15: The Phoenix

 

Now that Erik is saved and we're all safely into the falling action, Christine turns out to be pregnant again, which is again a quick shorthand way of emphasizing her living relationship with Raoul as being solid and fruitful in spite of past tragedy.

 

Oh, Erik. "I know you're worried that you just helped a murderer escape justice and that I might keep stalking your wife... but think about how sad she would have been if I had died!" Yeah, that'll win Raoul right over. I assume that there were giant fireworks of hubris creating a huge image of finger-guns over his head while he was saying this, and Montgomery just forgot to tell us.

 

Even to the end, everyone seems intent on blaming Christine for Erik's behavior (how dare she), but when he makes a last-ditch effort to retain his obsession and try to get her to come with him, she shuts him down gratifyingly hard. And then off he rides into the sunset with Meg, with whom I have to assume he is not going to have a particularly happy relationship. Oh, I know I'm supposed to root for them, but they're both self-obsessed rapists who blame everyone else for their problems, so I can only be so optimistic. It feels shoehorned together anyway, part rewarding Erik for his past suffering and part wanting to make the reader feel like he's a prize in spite of his awful behavior. We'll just have to hope that the next book - which is the second of five, shit - gives them a real relationship that they can grow into.

 

Honestly, in spite of Meg’s and Erik's inexcusability, I actually really liked a lot of this. There was strong characterization, interesting storytelling even when it meandered a bit, a lot of good themes from the original novel and of Montgomery's own inclusion, and when the characters did things that were wrong, people told them they were wrong and refused to coddle them for it. I'll take the somewhat unbelievable plot as a necessarily evil to get all of that.

 

But yikes, seriously. I'm not sure how I feel about now heading off into the next book with the two characters I liked least, and leaving all the ones I thought were really well-written behind. We'll all have to hope for the best.

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