Genre: Adult Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: December 18 2012
This beautifully written story, the second in the series, was ultimately very frustrating for me to read, mostly due to the fact that I did not read The Alchemist of Souls first. I did not realize this was a second book when I requested it from NetGalley, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have asked for it (and that is entirely my fault, I did not read the description carefully enough – lesson learned!). While it has vivid historical details and an abundance of atmosphere, it was hard for me to stay engaged with the characters and the story. Throughout the book are references to things that happened in the first book, events that aren’t explained and went right over my head. As much as I tried to understand these references from the context of the story, I failed miserably and skimmed over the parts that were confusing, which added to the overall confusion, I’m afraid!
When the story begins, we are thrust into the lives of Mal Catlyn and his valet Coby Hendricks, who have discovered that the skraylings, mystical beings who now live among humans and are reincarnated over and over when they die, may have struck up an alliance with the city of Venice. This necessitates a journey to the famous city to try to fix the problem, which is where the story really became interesting for me. Lyle’s setting is an alternate history Tudor England, complete with references to Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others. (Clearly, the title is a nod to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.) It’s familiar enough for history buffs to recognize the time period, but with the addition of skraylings into the mix the story becomes a slightly off-kilter reconstruction of that era. Mal and his brother Sandy are interesting characters because a skrayling has been reborn and shares their bodies. (This is one of those story points that I’m still having a hard time grasping, but which I’m sure the first book explains.)
The story is filled with a fair amount of gender-bending and sexual ambiguity. Mal’s valet Coby is actually a young woman who has been dressing as a boy in order to travel safely with Mal. But from what I can gather, Mal and Coby fell in love during The Alchemist of Souls and still have feelings for each other, albeit unresolved ones. Coby’s disguise makes it nearly impossible for them to acknowledge their feelings in public or risk ridicule, or worse, prison. Then we have Ned, one of my favorite characters, who is Mal’s staunch friend but is in love with him as well. Mal and Ned have been lovers in the past, which makes their present relationship even more confusing. Later when the characters arrive in Venice, yet another character is added to this odd mix, a skrayling named Olivia who represents a serious threat and must be dealt with, despite Mal being extremely attracted to her. It’s interesting to see how all these relationships work themselves out, and Lyle takes her time resolving things, keeping the reader in suspense through most of the story. I found the author’s inclusion of complicated relationships very Shakespearean, and I felt they added a sense of intrigue that felt just right.
The setting of Venice where much of the action takes place was gorgeously descriptive and I felt myself completely immersed in the Venetian culture that the author brings to life. Lyle describes the city as a contradiction, where the elite and wealthy live in splendor and attend masked parties, but around every corner is terrible squalor that is simply a part of everyday life. Men of all social standings urinate on the street, and even the women must find “piss pots” when they need to relieve themselves. I loved some of the historical details that the author sprinkled into her story, such as the invention of the wrist watch and the newfangled “post office” that had recently sprung up in Venice. I also loved the sea journey to Venice, a tense and exciting part of the story where there are dangers aplenty, including pirates.
The fantasy elements were subtle, and for me, my least favorite parts of the book, probably because of the confusion I admitted to earlier. I much preferred the wonderfully detailed history lesson that Lyle provided, and the intrigue among the characters, especially when they arrived in Venice. I would highly recommend this book for history buffs that would enjoy a fantasy element that doesn’t overpower the story. Lyle’s use of period-correct dialog, while a bit hard to read and understand at first, lent authenticity to the story.
The bottom line is this: read The Alchemist of Souls first. While this book is well-written and held many positives for me, my enjoyment was hindered by the fact that I felt like I was going in blind. With the back story of Book One firmly in place, The Merchant of Dreams will most likely enthrall any reader who loves history.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.