Tag Archives: historical fantasy

THE MERCHANT OF DREAMS by Anne Lyle – Review

Merchant of DreamsThe Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle

Genre: Adult Historical Fantasy

Publisher: Angry Robot

Release date: December 18 2012

Pages: 528

three and a half

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.

Find The Merchant of DreamsGoodreads * Amazon * Barnes & Noble *

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SOMETHING RED by Douglas Nicholas – Review

“The snow diminished, but in its stead came a malicious little wind that drew claws across the back of his neck.”

Often when I start reading a book, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. But once in a while, I am surprised, and Something Red was one of the biggest and best reading surprises I’ve had in a long time. Nicholas is a master storyteller and has the rare skill of being able gradually build a sense of dread and terror in such a way that it virtually sneaks up on the reader. This is a rather quiet story that relies not on big action scenes, but on an irresistible mix of wonderful characters and carefully constructed moments that add up to an amazing reading experience.

Set in thirteenth century England during an especially nasty winter, Molly and her band of friends are trying to cross a mountain pass with their wagons ahead of the impending heavy snows. Molly is an Irish woman of indeterminate age who brews potions and is able to communicate with crows. Her traveling companions are granddaughter Nemain (pronounced “Nevan”), a young girl in her teens who helps Molly make her concoctions and is able to sense danger; Jack, Molly’s lover and protector, a mysterious and silent man who is not able to speak but is a strong and passionate defender; and Hob, Molly’s thirteen-year-old apprentice whose main job is caring for the ox that pulls Molly’s wagon. The story is told in third person mostly from Hob’s point of view and takes place in a monastery, an inn, and a castle, as the troupe battles their way from place to place in the terrible winter snows that are gradually getting worse. As they make their way through the dark and snowy woods between each location, the feeling that something is stalking them is keenly felt by everyone in the troupe. And when the danger becomes real and horribly mutilated bodies begin to turn up, Molly and Jack come up with a dangerous plan to save those who are still alive.

The lilting Irish brogue of the characters was hard to get used to at first, but once I caught on to the rhythm and beauty of the language, I couldn’t imagine this book being written any other way. Nicholas is a poet, and his love of language shines through in every sentence. His descriptions, especially those involving the senses, are so vivid that I imagined I could feel the biting cold of the snow and even smell the coppery scent of blood. Although this is a fantasy, the fantastical elements are subtle, lying just beneath the surface of the story, waiting to jump out when you least expect them. I also loved the historical authenticity that Nicholas brings to the book, as he scatters words like “escaffignons” and “cotehardie” throughout the story.

Although I loved everything about this book, my favorite part of Something Red was the characters. Despite the unseen horror that is stalking them through the forest, there is a certain charm to the story that’s hard to explain, but I’m sure the characters have a lot to do with it. Molly, the leader of the group, has an almost mythic quality about her. She’s a woman who can seemingly do anything (throw knives, win at chess, heal the dying), and although she is a grandmother and is described as having gray hair, I never pictured her as an older woman. Her granddaughter Nemain, who just happens to be in love with Hob, is a mystery as well. Nicholas describes her in his typical poetic fashion: “Her silence was that of one who carries gold in a secret purse, hoping not to be noticed.” Fiercely devoted to Molly, Jack is a larger-than-life character with an intriguing back story that eventually emerges later in the book, and also explains why he is mute. Not only does he defend Molly, Nemain and Hob against the various dangers they encounter, but the author injects a touch of bawdiness into the story when describing his prowess in bed.

But of all the characters, I loved Hob the most. At its core, this is a coming-of-age story, and Hob goes through many changes before emerging a man at the end. One of his most endearing features is his love for Milo the ox, who also loves him back and will do anything Hob asks of him.  Any coming-of-age story worth its salt wouldn’t be complete without first love, and Nicholas makes sure Hob experiences love and desire for the first time, but in a controlled and subtle way. Like the looming horrors in the snow, Hob’s awareness of his desire seems to grow alongside the terror, as he experiences the pain and confusion of first love.

Eventually Molly and her troupe are able to put a name to the evil and confront it, in a wonderfully surprising way. Nicholas brings in several shady characters later in the story who could be responsible for the horrific killings, but he keeps the reader guessing almost to the end. In the final pages as Hob makes the transition from child to adult, the snow begins to melt and winter turns to spring. I had goose bumps as I read the final page and longed to know that thing all writers want their readers to feel at the end of a story: What Happens Next.

Many thanks to the publisher (Atria/Emily Bestler Books) for a review copy. Something Red comes out tomorrow, September 18th. You can purchase it here.

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Waiting on Wednesday #15 – SOMETHING RED by Douglas Nicholas

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Breaking the Spine, and is a great way to share the books you are “waiting on” with other book bloggers. This week I’m stepping back in time to highlight a historical fantasy. I don’t usually read historical fiction in any form. I just prefer the present! But this book sounds amazing, and it’s already received great reviews from seasoned writers.

Something Red by Douglas Nicholas. Release date: September 18 2012 (Atria/Emily Bestler Books) This atmospheric cover just screams “something really bad is going to happen if you go into the forest.” Set in 1300th century England, this tale by poet Nicholas is filled with magic, a terrible snowstorm, and a lurking, evil creature. And romance. What more could you want in a book? Here’s what Goodreads says:

From debut novelist Douglas Nicholas comes a haunting fantasy of love, murder, and sorcery set in one of the coldest winters of thirteenth-century England.During the 1200s in northwest England, in one of the coldest winters in living memory, a formidable middle-aged Irishwoman and the troupe she leads are trying to drive their three wagons across the mountains before the heavy snows set in. Molly, her powerful and enigmatic lover, her fey granddaughter, and her young apprentice, soon discover that something terrible prowls the woods. As the group travels from refuge to refuge, it becomes apparent that the mysterious evil force must be faced and defeated—or else they will surely die.     An intoxicating and spirited blend of fantasy, mythology, and history, Something Red features the most fascinating of characters including shapeshifters, Irish battle queens, Norman knights, Templars, pilgrims, Saracens, a Lithuanian noblewoman, warrior monks, strong—even dangerous—women, and ten murderous mastiffs, as well as an epic snowstorm that an early reader described as “one of the coldest scenes since Snow Falling on Cedars.”

I believe this book started out as an independently published novel from Createspace and was later picked up by Simon & Schuster. Click on the book image if you’d like to add Something Red to your Goodreads books! What are you waiting on this week?

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