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.
The Merchant of Dreams is the second book of The Night’s Masque. Lyle’s debut The Alchemist of Souls is one of my top ten debuts of 2012, so I was very excited to be able to crack open or rather tap open my eARC of The Merchant of Dreams to return to her alternate Tudor England and see how the story would continue. In The Merchant of Dreams Lyle deepens her world, allows us to travel to foreign parts, and develops her characters further in unexpected but wonderful ways.
We rejoin Mal and Coby as they travel by ship to Corsica to find a ship-wrecked skrayling vessel that has been haunting Mal’s dreams and to rescue its crew. From this point in the Mediterranean we travel back to London, to Skrayling-held Sark, and to Venice and follow on several sea voyages. So Lyle very much broadens the stage on which her story unfolds. The one thing that confused me was the deeding of Sark to the Skraylings as that was something that must have happened between the first book and this one, but to me it came rather out of the blue. However, it is a rather clever substitution of the historical Seigneur who was given the island in fief at much the same conditions as the Skraylings were, that also gave them somewhat of a power base in the regions, which could have interesting consequences in the rest of the series.
This novel’s greatest draw for me location-wise was Venice. I always love novels set there, or in cities inspired by Venice, and Lyle does the city justice. She evokes a glittering city, which on closer inspection turns out to be rather tawdry and worn. She also manages to make it feel rather claustrophobic, emphasising its disorientating street plan, its covered alleyways, the waterways, and the cramped conditions on the street in most places other than the large waterways and the piazza’s. It felt like Lyle did lots of research and just made tiny little tweaks to what she found to make the city fit in her alternate universe. So much so, that if and when I do visit Venice, I might be surprised that I won’t find certain places she described.
The Merchant of Dreams also reunites us with most of the cast of The Alchemist of Souls. Not only do Mal and Coby return, but Ned, Gabriel, Mal’s twin Sandy, and the Skrayling ambassador Kiiren all play parts in the novel. We really get to know Sandy and Gabriel in this book, which was both interesting and entertaining. We also meet the twins’ elder brother Charles, who was a surprise and not at all how I expected him to be. My favourite part of this book was Coby’s development. In The Alchemist of Souls, she was very much all about surviving and hiding her true gender. In this book however, Lyle plays around with the need for Coby to drop her boy’s guise and resume feminine dress, not because she needs to conform, but because it’s necessary to accomplish her and Mal’s assignment from Walsingham. This changing back to a girl entails far more than just dropping her disguise and it isn’t an easy decision for Coby to make. Lyle explores the pursuant emotions and trepidations with a deft and gentle hand and creates a story line for Coby that I found riveting and compelling. I adored that Coby didn’t make this shift to please Mal or make it possible for her to be his openly, but only out of necessity and because she wants to make that decision. She has developed in a strong, well-rounded female lead character, and even though I really enjoy Mal and the others as well, Coby is hands down my favourite character in The Night’s Masque series.
Lyle also shows us more of the Skrayling culture and magic. We find out about guisers, Skrayling reborn as humans, often by accident, like Erishen, but at times by design, such as Jathekkil in the last book. We learn that this is anathema to the Skrayling and that they’d rather die a true death than be reborn human and that this is also why they wear their spirit-guards. When Mal meets and befriends an accidental guiser in Venice, we are given a character that rather reminded me of Melisande Shahrizai, from the Kushiel books by Jacqueline Carey. She possesses the same attraction and the same danger and unpredictability as Melisande has and I’m looking forward to what will happen with her in the next book. In any case, she teaches Mal how to control the Skrayling magic he possesses, which rather surprised me, as I hadn’t expected Mal to want to learn as he seemed to rather ignore that part of himself as much as he could. Still, through these lessons we learn more of the Skrayling magic and I found it really interesting.
With the plot of The Merchant of Dreams setting up rather interesting possible avenues Lyle might pursue, while still wrapping up most of the Venetian plotlines, the wait for The Prince of Lies is going to be rather hard. I really want to know what happens now! The Merchant of Dreams is a fantastic sequel to The Alchemist of Souls, though it is less self-contained, leaving more open endings than its predecessor. Lyle is a master of blending historical fact and fantastic fiction and she’s only gotten better with her second book. Go read The Merchant of Dreams if you’ve read the first book, if not, go read The Alchemist of Souls and then read The Merchant of Dreams. You’ll be glad you did.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.