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Melusine - Sarah Monette The first half of the book is flawless, but the second half is really a different story altogether, and it's really not quite as good. Still, I'll definitely be following Monette! (Melusine was her first book; she's already published two sequels, which I'm on the lookout for.)

Set in the dark-fantasy city of Melusine, which of course is full of decadence, crime, romance, wealth & glamour and dire poverty - not to mention magic and danger - the main character is Mildmay, a young, scarred, dangerous but decent-at-heart thief. Hired by an out-of-his-league courtesan to steal some jewels that she believes are rightfully hers, Mildmay of course develops a fascination with the beautiful but not-so-streetwise woman.
The first half of the book is a just gorgeous, original tense story that spirals deftly into tragedy... just wonderful.

The second part of the book deals more with Mildmay's encounters with a wizard, Felix, who is the victim of a plot to make him the scapegoat for intrigue at high levels, and is subject to a spell that makes him appear insane. His physical resemblance to Mildmay is remarkable, and leads the two to a connection that their different social classes render unlikely... it's also a good (well-better-than-average) story, but doesn't have the emotional impact of the first part of the book, and when the action leaves Monette's beautifully-realized city, the aesthetics falter a bit, entering a more typical-fantasy realm.

The only really unfortunate thing about this book is the cover (featuring a cheesy, hunky topless tattooed guy) - it's so embarrassingly bad that I took off the dust jacket to read it - and good luck suggesting the novel to a guy!