The Merchant of Dreams, by Anne Lyle [Night’s Masque #2]

  • TITLE: The Merchant of Dreams [Night’s Masque #2]
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE:  3rd January 2013 (UK paperback)

The Merchant of Dreams, by Anne Lyle—Night’s Masque #2—is an example of pure storytelling. Rich and well-paced, the second instalment of the series builds on the foundation of The Alchemist of Souls and completely avoids “middle-book syndrome” by becoming a solid middle point for the series, setting a high bar and allowing only for things to get better.

Often, what makes a book is a mixture of two elements, perfectly and chemically arranged on a page as suits the author’s style and tastes. Character and plot. If any one ingredient is lacking, or does not gel well enough, then the formula is ruined and the result will be subpar. When reading Lyle you never need to worry about the mixture being right—it always is. Lyle’s skill at writing character sets her apart in the genre and makes her work all the more approachable and identifiable.

In The Merchant of Dreams—helpfully hinted at by the gorgeous front cover and the play on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—the cast sets sail on Walsingham’s business to the Serene Republic; Venice. With the richness and wonder of Venice to play with, Lyle set out to really push the imagination and just what she could achieve with her characters and the setting provided. The result is a magical romp through a familiar Venice—with its canals and piazzas and masked parties—with all the tension and intrigue of intelligencers, skraylings and guisers, and secrets nestled between the Serene Republic’s soft bosom—secrets that she wants to keep close to her heart.

With Coby’s secret held by Mal, their relationship begins to blossom, awkwardly—though as long as they remain in England there can be no romance between them. On the contrary, Gabriel and Ned have settled into a routine of domestic and romantic normalcy that—mostly—serves to quell Ned’s resurfacing affections for his former lover, Mal, who, despite having freed his twin brother Sandy from Bedlam and having successfully uncovered the mysteries of his past, is as troubled as ever by recent revelations and events. And with Ambassador Kiiren gone from England and Sandy with him, Mal’s humour has been better.

When he is ordered to Venice to spy on the skraylings’ sought alliance with Venice, he takes Ned with him, giving Cody strict orders to take care of Sandy, whose return is a welcome surprise, yet one he cannot fully trust. Coby swears to Mal his brother will stay safe. No sooner has the promise been made, than Sandy and Erishen inside him, begin to cause trouble—trouble that forces Coby and Gabriel both from England. Before long, more ungodly trouble hounds Coby, with the appearance of more skraylings, whose betrayal comes at sea and threatens to take them all the way back to the New World. Coby is forced to lie and think quickly and eventually they find themselves following after Mal and heading to Venice.

Meanwhile Ned is hardly cut out for the life Mal has introduced him to, and though he is a dab hand on a ship, he soon tires of being away from Gabriel and being surrounded by men on a ship who take a dislike to his preferences. More danger abounds before they even reach the Serene Republic, and with Sir Walter Raleigh in tow and appearances on the up-and-up, Mal is struggling to get done what needs doing, without arousing suspicion regarding his own secret past. After attacks at sea, storms and pirates, being in Venice should be an easy game, but Mal discovers otherwise when he finds there is no access to the skraylings or Kiiren, and that Venice is ruled from the shadows by at least one guiser.

Under the cover of seeking his brother Charles, who is rumoured to be in Venice, Mal treads as lightly as he dares through the streets of Venice, which he finds are not as serene as the name implies.

The Merchant of Dreams is a complete success that invites you into a world of intrigue and danger, fencing and romance. The sexual tension between Ned and Mal is beautifully written and adds not only a depth to the relationship, but a streak of realism. Lyle successfully writes gay and bisexual characters as naturally as breathing, and it makes for a deeply enjoyable read. Gabriel and Ned are as enjoyable as Coby and Mal, Sandy and Kiiren.

In fact, the relationships between Lyle’s male characters take the book to another level for me. She writes homosexual characters and shoehorns nothing for any minority (perceived or otherwise)—she just happens to write Gabriel and Ned, who love each other and do the dirty, and Ned, who is Mal’s former lover, who happens to enjoy the womenfolk as well. It’s as simple as that and I appreciate seeing more than just a homosexual character there for decoration, or to be penned in on all sides by heteronormative characters. Never mind the mythological bisexual character, appearing, nowhere, ever!

It’s refreshing, and damn if I don’t enjoy reading about pretty Gabriel and brooding Mal. Coby, too, is a brilliant example of a cross-dressing heroine doing it more—by now—because she enjoys being Jacob Hendricks as well as Mina Hendricks. It raises fantastic questions about gender in a new way—and I love it.

In fact, I loved everything about The Merchant of Dreams: it is exciting, thrilling and Lyle’s gorgeous prose drives the story elegantly forwards towards a goal. Lyle is good at endings—not all writers are—and amidst the bittersweet closing chapters lie the seeds of a plot that could have some incredibly awesome consequences, should they be allowed to bloom. A fantastic example of historical fantasy going all the way and holding nothing back, The Merchant of Dreams is complex and exciting.

Gorgeous prose, stunning ability to weave a story, and likeable, moreish characters—Lyle is a winner. Read her.


(P.S. I am crushing on Coby.)


The Alchemist of Souls, by Anne Lyle (Night’s Masque #1)

  • TITLE: The Alchemist of Souls (Night’s Masque #1)
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 5th April 2012

I’ll start by saying this is the first book from this imprint I’ve read; mainly as I’d never really heard of Angry Robot Books before (shame on me!). The majority of the titles I read have been published by Orbit, Gollancz, and Tor, and since I am fairly new to alternate history fantasy, or historical fantasy (a particular flavour that seems very common to the imprint) it’s not a surprise to me that this is my first.

And what a first to begin with! I honestly haven’t had this much fun with a book since Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves. They are very different books, but they share the same sort of cloak-and-dagger flavour.

I must begin by saying that Anne Lyle is a storyweaver of the highest calibre; her elegant prose is nothing short of beautiful. I enjoyed every single second of this book and everything from the characters and their relationships, to the exceptionally tight plotting, to the believable intrigue heralds Lyle as not just an insanely talented new writer, but also a poet and true master of words.

It might be somewhat obvious by now that The Alchemist of Souls was a hit with me. I’ll try not to gush too much hereafter…

I’m very new to real-world or alternative history fantasy—that isn’t of the urban variety—and I am woefully unused to the genre and the way it works, having only read The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, thus far. I’d been under the impression that I might not like a fantasy of this type—that it wouldn’t be “fantasy” enough for me, being set in our real world. In the end, that didn’t matter a jot. The most magical thing about alternate or historical real world fantasy is that anything goes. I suppose that’s why it’s fantasy.

Lyle’s imagination is a vivid and colourful one, and boy does it show through. The Alchemist of Souls offers, alongside the usual life of Elizabethan England, the skraylings—creatures from the New World—and a fashion of alchemical magic and wonder that gives a whole different edge to the story.

The characters are believable and exceptionally well written; there isn’t a single member of the cast who doesn’t vie for your readerly affections—and there certainly isn’t one who doesn’t receive them. I liked everyone. I forget the last time I read a book and liked absolutely everyone. Sure enough, the characters have flaws and the way in which the other characters see them differs depending on POV—it’s interesting and builds a gentle sense of natural conflict and tension that is so very real that it brings the characters to life on a whole new level.

Maliverny Catlyn is the protagonist, and at first glance he appears to be your typical rogue-with-a-fancy-rapier. From a noble line, but down on his luck, Mal doesn’t seem to be anything special, and at first, the supporting cast—player Gabriel “Angel” Parish, scribe, Ned Faulkner, Mal’s friend and Gabriel’s lover, and Coby, a tireman for a troupe of actors with the patronage of Lord Suffolk—seem to be far more interesting and layered. Of course, there is far, far more to Mal than meets the eye—more than even he knows.

Gabriel and Ned begin the story apart, with Ned mooning over an uninterested Mal—but that doesn’t stop Ned hoping—with Gabriel readying himself within his group of players, Suffolk’s Men, headed by Master Naismith for a playing contest, whilst Mal is conveyed to the Tower of London in questionable circumstances, for reasons contrary to his expectations. Meanwhile Coby—Jacob Hendricks—is a young Dutch boy fending for himself whilst holding a treacherous secret to his chest. The events of the story all intertwine and pull the characters closer together, with unexpected revelations and circumstances along the way.

Not one character is under- or overdone and when the viewpoint skips from one to another, there is no sense of lost pace or momentum. All the characters are equally entertaining and with equally riveting plot arcs of their own.

I particularly enjoyed the way Lyle handles homosexuality and gay sex. Since she’s a woman, I’m certain it’s something she’s never experienced, but instead of treating it as something alien, she appears to write simply as though she were writing love/sex scenes between any two characters that share lust or love for one another. And the prose is all the richer for it. I haven’t read many gay sex scenes in fantasy. In fact, the only character I’ve read who is homosexual is The Legends of the Red Sun’s (Mark Charan Newton) Brynd Lathraea. There was something more to the relationships between Lyle’s men, something far more passionate and real.

As a bisexual male, I definitely appreciated a break from swooning maidens and heroes with their eyes agog at the heroine’s fine, fine cleavage. It was a refreshing change, and a fantastic reminder of how much closer men used to be with one another, in light of the role women played, historically, in Lyle’s chosen time-setting. If we’re not mincing words; I bloody loved it.

There are more twists, plots, and subtle machinations in The Alchemist of Souls than you can shake a pointy thing at—and damn does Lyle write every second, every detail, every thread so impeccably well that you’d think she’s been writing books for centuries. Yes, she’s that good.

It has been a long time since I encountered an author whose work I would describe as poetry also. Anne Lyle is one such author. The Alchemist of Souls, as a work of elegant fantasy prose, should be considered alongside Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and (by my favour) Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth.

Anne Lyle’s writing is beautiful, elegant and gripping; be prepared to be swept away to a rich and colourful depiction of a different Elizabethan England, where treachery and danger abound.