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Shadowhawk reviews the second entry in the Night’s Masque historical fantasy series by new author Anne Lyle.
“Full of vitality and some spectacular sequences, Merchant of Dreams is simply fantastic.“ ~The Founding Fields
When I reviewed Anne’s first novel in this series, Alchemist of Souls, I said at the end that it was a fantastic novel and that I hoped she would deliver on the sequel just as well as she did with her debut. That was expectation going into Merchant of Dreams and I must say that I really had a grand old time with it. It was a ton of fun to get back into her alternate Shakespearen England setting with the protagonists Mal Catlyn and Coby. Their adventures start off in England all right, but this time the shift is to the city of Venice however as the two agents of the English intelligencery (I probably made that word up) are sent on a mission to the floating city and fall afoul of events beyond their ken and control.
Anne’s characterisation is still incredible and pretty much flawless, in the sense that I really cannot find any fault with it. Mal is still the charming rogue and peerless swordsman I remember, and Coby is still the outspoken and highly intelligent and capable woman that I met in Alchemist of Souls. There are changes in the personalities for both characters, as they’ve grown quite a bit since their last outing.
Mal has taken to his new life as an agent of the Empire in Provence, although he still grumbles about it now and then. His relationship with his brother Sandy, formerly a mental patient of sorts but now quite lucid following the closing events of Alchemist of Souls, is also much different than before. Mal still dotes somewhat on Sandy, but the two have also grown apart and Mal has had to live with the changes in his brother, changes that he most definitely does not approve of at all.
Coby was the real surprise here. Before, she was someone who had to conceal her gender from everyone since she was a woman who worked in a man’s world (and all women actors were forbidden under English law, which did not make it easier for her as someone who worked in an acting company, Suffolk’s Men). A lot of her mental processes were taken up with this effort at concealment, and while we still get a lot of that in Merchant of Dreams, since she and Mal carry on the pretense that she is his male assistant, we also get to see the truly feminine side of her. She has to confront her suspicions and fear of how she has to act and “perform” as a woman, not a man, after years of doing the former. How she goes about doing that is a lot of fun to read and I have to say that her scenes were definitely among the best in the novel by a mile.
We also return to characters such as Ned Faulkner (Mal’s best friend and also somewhat of a former flame), Gabriel Parrish (one of the actors who was formerly part of Suffolk’s Men and is Ned’s lover), and Ambassador Kiiren (the Skrayling head-honcho in Europe and a friend to both Mal and Sandy). Also, Sandy of course. Seeing all these characters setting out together on an adventure of sorts to Venice is one of the highlights of the novel. Where in Alchemist of Souls the primary focus was on Mal and Coby, in Merchant of Dreams we see a lot more of the secondary characters, which serves to build up the world quite nicely. Ned and Gabriel are excellent vehicles for exploring how the people of the times viewed homosexuality. As with the previous book, the issue is handled with maturity and there are some love scenes between some of the characters, or “almost” love scenes, and it reinforces the fact that while homosexuality was a criminal offense in those times, it was also quite widespread regardless. Ned and Gabriel aren’t just agents for this aspect of the world however, they get to do a lot more than just have fun with each other, particularly Ned as he gets a very good outing with Mal in some of the best action scenes in the novel. Gabriel also serves as Coby’s tutor of sorts in that he “reminds” her how to be a woman since he was one of the most accomplished of Suffolk’s Men’s “women actors”. It is quite an interesting dynamic I have to say.
Sandy’s somewhat unique nature and Kiiren’s support of him adds to the larger Skrayling view on Sandy’s… condition, and we see some measure of the Skrayling internal politics as well. I would have liked to see a lot more of Kiiren than what we saw, but his special appearances didn’t disappoint either. His… concern for Sandy and Mal felt a lot more believable this time since I already knew the “why” of it, unlike last time. Sandy’s growth as a character was presented well, but it also lacked some times. The larger scope of the novel prevented Anne from really delving into his character, and while I’m not disappointed by it, this did serve to prevent him from coming across as a fully-realised character. Not until the end of the novel did I start to get really interested in him (if you read the novel you will see why that is). Still, all in all, he is one hell of a character, given some of the things he does in the first half.
One of the good things about all these characters is that they are all very proactive, forcing events instead of mostly just reacting to them. This is more valid in the case of Ned, Gabe and Sandy than for Kiiren.
There are several other secondary characters here, such as the Moor Captain Youssef, the Venetian courtesan Olivia dalle Boccole, Sir Raleigh who provides Mal with a pretext for his spy mission to Venice, and others. The differences in their backgrounds, their natures, their personalities, everything adds up to build up Anne’s Europe all that more. We see a lot more of the larger politics of the known world, how the different cultures and cities relate to each other, the tensions between them, the alliances and all. The increased scope of the novel is ever at the forefront and it cements the fact that the events that happened in London (in Alchemist of Souls) and now in Venice aren’t happening in some sort of vaccuum; there are consequences of everything.
A more fully realised world, richer secondary characters, an excellent main cast, and a very moving and emotional story make Merchant of Dreams a very enjoyable novel. It is certainly a stronger novel than it’s predecessor, which was already pretty damn good (it also made my list “Best Debuts of 2012“). Anne has made quite some improvements with her second novel and it’s nice to see that growth in her as an author. Also means that she can deliver when it comes to it, unlike some other debut authors I’ve read in recent years. Another win for her and for Angry Robot!