The Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle
Anne Lyle continues her Elizabethan sword-and-cipher fantasy series NIGHT’S MASQUE with Book Two, The Merchant of Dreams. This book picks up almost a year after the end of The Alchemist of Souls, and follows Mal Catlyn and his friends on their adventures, which take place mostly on the ocean or in the city of Venice.
In Lyle’s universe, the New World is populated by skraylings, a non-human race who reincarnate and who use magic. The skraylings have a trade agreement with England, but they are distrusted, hated and even hunted down by some humans who think they are demons. Most people do not realize that a skrayling whose body is killed can reincarnate into, or “possess,” a human. Mal and his twin brother Sandy, who already share a soul, are both possessed by the skrayling Erishen, although Sandy is more of a host than Mal. In England and elsewhere in Europe, long-lived skraylings have possessed humans (they are called “guisers”) and have plans to rule Europe. At the end of the first book, a skrayling had successfully incarnated into the body of Queen Elizabeth’s newborn grandson and heir to the throne.
Mal and his friends are trying to stop the guiser plot, but Mal also works for Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spy-master, and gets sent on more mundane espionage assignments as well. In The Merchant of Dreams, Mal goes to Venice to find out why the skraylings have sent a delegation there. Britain is jealous of its trade monopoly with the skraylings and do not want to share with Venice.
I didn’t like this book as much as I liked the first one. The ideas here are still original, but the story unfolds in an episodic manner and events feel mechanical. At the very beginning of the book, Mal and Coby, a young Dutch woman disguised as a boy, go to a town where a shipload of skraylings have been captured and all but one of them is dead. Mal and Coby help the one survivor escape, and it is revealed that Mal became aware of the imprisoned skraylings because of a dream, but this dramatic event is never tied to the rest of the book. On their way to Venice with Walter Raleigh, Mal and his friend Ned are attacked by pirates. This action sequence seems to exist only to let us know that there are pirates (although we do get to see some of Mal’s swordplay, which is always a treat).
Venice, of course, is being influenced by a “guiser,” one of the Ancient Ones of the skraylings, who was abducted four hundred years earlier by Norse raiders. This skrayling has been incarnating into humans and attempting to control things for centuries, but doesn’t rule Venice or really control anybody. It’s hard to see what the guiser’s evil master-plan is, exactly.
I also had a problem with emotional affect in this book, particularly with Mal. Lyle describes emotions, but I never feel them. Mal feels the same whether he is being tortured, making love to the Venetian courtesan Olivia, or kidnapping a child. Mal is supposed to be torn between his loyalty to his brother — and therefore, in spite of himself, Erishen — and England, but it never seems like there is a real conflict between those two things here. To sabotage the trade agreement, he needs to put the guiser out of commission; to save himself and his brother, he needs to turn the guiser over to other skraylings. These seem to be the same mission.
The character of Erishen is better developed here. As he grows stronger he becomes more dangerous and more interesting. He inhabits Sandy’s body, but has no loyalty to humans; in fact, he mostly feels contempt for them. He seems perfectly willing to betray Coby and her friends if it will further his agenda. This is where most of the suspense occurs in the book.
Mal learns more skrayling skills, including dream-walking, in this installment, but his attempt to trick the guiser releases a pack of hell-hounds into Venice. This provides the action and suspense in the last quarter of the book.
Most of the humor is provided by Coby, who has to travel in disguise as a woman — she is already a woman disguised as a boy — for part of the book. To learn how to walk in a dress and flirt and do all the things she has trained herself not to do, she turns to her friend and Ned’s lover, the actor Gabriel. However, things that would make her character interesting, such as her interest in clockwork and the device she creates to help Ned, happen offstage. We see her learning how to act like a woman but we don’t see her develop as a character.
In typical Book Two fashion, nothing is wrapped up at the end. Mal’s party has suffered setbacks but are (mostly) intact; they accomplished their mission, but the guiser has escaped at the end of the book. Everything is in place for a big finish in the final volume.
I can recommend The Merchant of Dreams for its expansion of an original idea, but it is not as immersive or enjoyable as the first book. Lyle provides solid descriptions of Venice but the city never comes to life the way London did in The Alchemist of Souls. I am hoping that Lyle will master all her elements and pull everything together in Book Three.