One of the reasons I wanted a “normal” blog was to write book reviews. That goes back over a year and I’m not going to knife-and-fork every book I’ve read since (although a few will probably get honourable mentions). However I’ve just finished The Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle so thought that a good place to start.
The story is set in a slightly alternative timeline 16th century Europe. For example the first novel in the series (The Alchemist of Souls) is set in Elizabethan England, but one where Elizabeth I is married and has an heir. However, this novel takes place largely in the Mediterranean an climaxes in Venice.
A key part of the stories are the skraelings. These are a people mentioned in old Norse sagas who lived in what is now the northern US and Canada. Their incarnation in the books is as humans with short, stubby tails, tattooed faces and the ability to reincarnate their spirit in successive bodies.
The books’ main protagonist is Jacomina Hendricksdoughter (sp?), consistently referred to as Coby. She’s a Dutch protestant refugee in London who is young enough to don mens’ clothes but old enough to get away with being in charge of the costumes in a travelling band of actors and latterly be Malverny Caytlyn’s errand boy.
Malverny (Mal) Caytlyn (sp?) is a one time mercenary who’s become involved with the skraelings and Walsingham’s infamous spy network. Really the story is about him, but having Coby as the main protagonist keeps your brain cells jumping. In addition, the story is also told from other peoples’ points of view, including Ned Faulkner, friend and one time lover of Mal Caytlyn, and Erishan, one of the skraelings.
Historical note: this is a fantasy set in a slightly divergent historical timeline, not an alternative history with a dash of fantasy. The reason I make this distinction is because I read a review of the Alchemist of Souls which tore apart the book on three counts: a) Queen Elizabeth would never have kept the ambassador from a new people waiting for a week (perhaps in this timeline she does??); b) so she’s married, but where that leaves Mary Queen of Scots and James VI of Scotland isn’t explained (and isn’t relevant so why should it be??); and c) making the skraelings into this magical not-quite-human race is racist because scholars now agree that they’re the people who became the Inuit (despite the fact the book clearly states the skraelings come out of myth, not modern scholarship, and at the time the Norse sagas were written skraelings were regards as weird and magical creatures.
Really, if you’re going to get that anal about the historical bits of the book, it’s not for you.
For the rest of us, it’s an exciting romp through 16th century Europe with a good sense of humour and a well judged level of sexual innuendo which is never explicit but always leaves your imagination to fill in the gaps.
There’s also a good sense of place, whether sailing on the open seas, slumming it in London, or dashing around the twisty allies and canals of Venice. Furthermore, the characters engage the reader and pull you forwards in search of the next twist or unexpected revelation.
However there is one flaw in the whole thing which leaves me feeling really rather flat and not totally excited about getting the third in the series… the plotting. The storyline seems to be somehow aimless. It’s as though there’s something going on and the characters are swept up in it, each with his or her own personal agenda through which they influence events, but nothing is ever fully explained.
For example I was left wondering what the connection between Mal, his twin brother, and Erishen was at the end of the Alchemist of Souls. This only became apparent in the Merchant of Dreams. Similarly The Merchant of Dreams has left me wondering why the skraelings’ Lost Ones are reated as such pariahs when their history is that they were kidnapped from their homelands by Europeans against their will!
After reading Alchemist of Souls I had similar concerns but decided to give Merchant of Dreams a go just in case the editing had been tightened up. Sadly, IMHO, it hasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong. The writing is very strong in description and emotion, especially around Coby, and as said there is a good sense of place established. However the key plot points aren’t particularly well signposted and in some cases could even have been accidentally edited out all together. Sadly, this means that you’re left with an unsatisfying read which leaves you wondering what the actual point of the story was and where the conclusion’s supposed to be.
I have to admit the ending of Alchemist of Souls took me completely by surprise and just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. The ending of Merchant of Dreams isn’t quite so sudden but is still has an air of reaching the nearest possible ending within wordcount rather than reaching the conclusion it was always meant to.
All of which is a pity, because I do like Anne Lyle’s style, description and humour. I just wish things were better explained, that’s all.