Science fiction and fantasy

The Merchant of Dreams

by Anne Lyle


In some ways The Merchant of Dreams has got it all: pirates, swordplay, spies, intrigue in Venice, and a complex web of forbidden love affairs. It's the second outing of Maliverny Catlyn and Coby Hendricks, and they've been forced to leave England after the events in The Alchemist of Souls. Instead of departing together though Mal sets sail first on a vessel bound for Venice, where the skraylings are in talks with the Venetian authorities. The English are afraid they will abandon their alliance with Queen Elizabeth in favour of one with this republic, and it's Mal's job to uncover the truth.

Sir Walter Raleigh is leading their delegation, and although the flamboyant old pirate explorer isn't inconspicuous his presence can open doors for them. These doors open to glamorous masked balls and high society, although the Venetians are a reserved lot. Their women are often hidden, their dress is sombre, and nobody is allowed to talk to the skraylings. It's not the easiest of missions for the English spies, considering none of them speak the language.

Coby is accompanied by the former actor Gabriel and Sandy, Mal's twin brother. Sandy is an enigma, rarely himself but as sly as a cabal of foxes when he needs to be. That's quite often in this story, as the friends face attacks and betrayals with alarming frequency. Dangers at sea and disagreements at sword point provide lots of excitement. At no point does the Dread Pirate Roberts swing in and kebab half a dozen sailors before breakfast, but if he had it would fit right in.

The perils for the main characters aren't confined to the physical world. Mal and Sandy step further into the realm of guisers, those skraylings who are reborn in human form and are able to walk in the dream world. But this other plane contains nightmare creatures and other dangers for the inexperienced. Mal is wary of skrayling magic, but the situation in Venice is driving him to take desperate measures.

This story is romantic in all the best ways. The bawdy, colourful setting is a riot for the sense, and there are quite a few love affairs going on. The one we're led to care most about is between Coby and Mal, but she is unwilling to lose the freedom of dressing as a man, whilst one of the city's most beautiful women is trying to seduce him. The story is told through a number of different points of view, and I think the romance is slightly less of a focus as a result, because we know more about the main characters' feelings. Nevertheless it's a sweet, moving love story.

I'm not an advocate of stories that try to drum home their moral too preachily, but I do like to know what the author is trying to say. With this novel I wasn't sure what the characters had learned from their experiences. The do finish up in radically different situations, and they end up knowing a lot more things, but it's unclear whether that will change their attitudes. There's a lot of scope left for character development in the next book as Coby, Mal and their friends will have to adjust to some drastic changes in their circumstances.

One of the things I enjoyed most in this novel was its complexity. Just when you think you know who the bad guy is, it turns out to be someone else. There's very little good and evil, but almost everyone is wearing a mask of one sort or another and there's much fun to be had figuring out what's behind all of them.

8th January 2013

Book Details

Year of release: 2013

Categories: Books

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