The Merchant of Dreams ~ Anne Lyle

  • Title: The Merchant of Dreams
  • Author: Anne Lyle
  • Series: Night’s Masque #2
  • Genre: Historical Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  Book Two of the Night’s Masque series, sequel to The Alchemist of Souls

Exiled from the court of Queen Elizabeth for accusing a powerful nobleman of treason, swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn has been living in France with his young valet Coby Hendricks for the past year.

But Mal harbours a darker secret: he and his twin brother share a soul that once belonged to a skrayling, one of the mystical creatures from the New World.

When Mal’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck in the Mediterranean proves reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.

Review: I’ve been mulling over this review for a while now, and I’m still a bit stumped and unsure how to keep it from being really short.

Let’s get the basics out of the way: I liked it, though not quite as much as I liked the first book in this trilogy. It was well-written, it read smoothly and there was not a moment where I felt bored and thought ‘yeah yeah, just get on with it already’.

The plot is a bit convoluted. We learned in the first book (spoilers!) that the mysterious beings called skraylings have souls that move to a nearby unborn infant when they die. Since they come from the New World and they often die far away from any other skraylings in England, this means that many of them have ‘reincarnated’ into human bodies, even though the very act of doing so is anathema to the skraylings. Our hero Maliverny Catlyn and his twin brother Sandy share one such soul between them, though Sandy got the larger part. Through this soul they are both able to perform certain skrayling magics, and because of this Mal learns of a party of skraylings who were on their way to establish a treaty with the republic of Venice.

The book covers a number of other characters apart from Mal, such as Mal’s girl-disguised-as-boy manservant Coby, Mal’s friend Ned and Ned’s lover Gabriel. Initially they’re more or less all over the place, but the plot eventually converges in Venice with a suitably exciting grand finale.

Where the book loses a few half stars is in both the characterisation and the sometimes all too convenient coincidences that hold the plot together. (Mal’s elder brother Charles is a known drunk and gambler, yet he waited 25+ years to sell a necklace in Venice just so our heroes can then retrieve it? I don’t quite buy that.) Ned seemed a bit nastier than in the last book, Mal a bit more petulant here and there, a little too fixed on his own wants rather than on what would be the smart thing to do. Certain events that happen are barely explained afterwards, or explained too late, even though the characters ought to be wondering how on earth that just happened.

Still, overall it was an enjoyable read, and a book which kept me effortlessly entertained from start to finish, and which made me go straight into the third book of this trilogy.

The Alchemist of Souls ~ Anne Lyle

  • Title: The Alchemist of Souls
  • Author: Anne Lyle
  • Series: Night’s Masque #1
  • Genre: Historical Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Erica
  • Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:  When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods–and a skrayling ambassador–to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally–and Mal his soul.

Review: This was my first foray into historical fantasy, and if all of it is this good I’m going to have to read a lot more of it. The story takes place in an alternate version of Elizabethan England, where the Virgin Queen of yore has actually married and has two adult sons. If the book stated an actual date when the action takes place I have forgotten it, but since this is an alternate reality it’s not really relevant.

The other significant difference is that when the explorers discovered America, they also discovered a race of people called skraylings. They are disconcertingly alien to humans, with their slit-pupiled eyes, pagan customs and strange magic, even if otherwise they don’t look too different. However, they are also important trade partners, and as such there is a slightly uneasy relationship between humans and skraylings. Added to that there is the tension between England and Spain and the old division of catholics and protestants, which all makes for a volatile climate.

Thrown into the midst of all this is our hero, Maliverny Catlyn. Mal is a trained swordsman but down on his luck and desperate for money when he is offered the position of bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador, who is coming to London to strengthen the ties between the English and the skraylings. This includes being the judge in a competition between theatrical companies for who puts on the best play. Mal is hesitant due to a dark, skrayling-related event in his past, but cannot really afford to decline the offer.

The plot pretty much centres on that – Mal’s history with the skraylings and the playwright competition, but even though that sounds slight, the book is never boring. I have often mentioned the ‘debut novel syndrome’, but even though this is Lyle’s debut novel (insofar as I could see), there was nothing of that to be found here. The writing is assured, evocative and engaging, and all the characters are fully fleshed-out. Since I’m Dutch I’m not as well-versed on my English history, so apart from the bit about Elizabeth the First having married I don’t really know what is authentic and what has been changed, but I really liked the fact that one of the secondary characters is a Dutch girl disguised as a boy, having fled the war with Spain in the low countries. I also liked the fact that Mal’s best friend is gay and in a relationship with one of the actors. I don’t know how historically accurate it is that people more or less turn a blind eye to it, but this was of course a time when male actors played all roles, even the female ones, because having a female on stage would be sacrilege, so I can very well imagine that the profession would have attracted gay people.

The final part of the book where various matters are resolved felt a bit overly easy to me, but on the whole I very much enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to reading the remaining two books in this trilogy. I would also like to say that I absolutely adore the cover of this book. I commend the artist on a perfect rendition of Mal.