I’ve read plenty of Sophie Masson’s novels and enjoyed them all, but I’m fairly certain that Malvolio’s Revenge may end up being my favourite. Though Masson usually writes straight-out fantasy stories, this is a more of a mystery with a few supernatural trappings thrown in.
The book’s title is a bit misleading, for this book isn’t a sequel to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Instead it refers to the title of a play that the travelling troupe of actors who comprise our main characters are performing all around Louisiana. Set primarily in New Orleans in 1910, the story begins on a terribly stormy night when the Trentham Troupe of Players stumble upon an old estate that promises food and shelter.
Unfortunately the mansion is all but ruined, but that it’s called Illyria (the setting of their play) is taken as a good omen — as is the mansion’s occupants: a beautiful Creole girl called Isabelle de Castelon and her nurse, the enigmatic Marie Laroche. Isabelle is a generous host and young Toby Trentham (our protagonist, nephew to the troupe’s leader) is instantly smitten. After watching the play Isabelle comes up with a startling idea: that they all travel to New Orleans together, where her contacts might well secure the troupe a commission in a proper theatre.
Seeing no reason to reject such a promising offer, the troupe set off with Isabelle and Marie in tow. But Toby is certain that there’s more to Isabelle than meets the eye. After hearing about the tragic death of her parents and witnessing her utter a promise to their tomb, he begins to realize that Isabelle has a specific purpose in going to New Orleans. She believes her father was murdered, and now she wants to see justice done.
With the Mardi Gras festivities looming, New Orleans is abuzz with preparations, and Toby has a lot to keep himself busy with. Yet it’s not only Isabelle, but his friend and fellow performer Gabriel Harvey who seems to be keeping secrets. And what is he meant to make of Thomas Nashe, the mysterious newcomer who grafts himself into the company and seems to have a vested interest in what they’re all doing?
According to Masson’s afterword, Malvolio’s Revenge was inspired not only by Twelfth Night, but also Theophile Gautier’s 19th century novel Le Capitaine Fracasse, as well as the city of New Orleans itself. Weaving in bits of history, such as the Jim Crow laws and a few cameo appearances from a very young Louis Armstrong, Masson creates a vivid rendering of New Orleans at the turn of the century and fills it full of fascinating characters: wealthy media moguls, charming albino gangsters, colourful theatre performers… there’s someone new and interesting on every page.
Her prose is always lovely, rich and descriptive without going overboard, and there are a few twists in what’s otherwise a fairly simple mystery. All things considered, it’s a little strange that this story was told from Toby’s point-of-view instead of Isabelle’s, for not only was she a more interesting character, but it was pretty much her story from start to finish. More often than not, Toby is just a witness or aide to her proactivity.