THE MERCHANT OF DREAMS by ANNE LYLE
PB, 475 pages, Angry Robot
“The Alchemist of Souls” was one of my favourite reads last year, and “The Merchant of Dreams” is the not-very-long awaited follow-up, the middle volume of a trilogy due to end with “The Prince of Lies” in November this year.
Mal and Coby have fled to Mal’s estates in France, but Mal is haunted by dreams and visions from the fragment of skrayling soul trapped within him. The skraylings, creatures from the New World, can re-incarnate into different bodies. But the soul that has re-incarnated into Mal has been severed, split between him and his twin brother, Sandy. The dreams that Erishen has sent him lead Mal and Coby on a spying mission to Venice, to a city where even the supposedly respectable hide their faces, and where a dark figure has been brooding for many centuries.
Mal and Coby, along with Mal’s long-suffering former lover Ned, make a wonderful team, augmented this time by actor and would-be playwright Gabriel Parrish and Mal’s brother Sandy, often more skrayling than human. Coby in particular really shines in this book, daring to shed her male disguise for the first time and emerging as a competent, quick-thinking heroine whose love for Mal doesn’t turn her brain to custard. It’s also refreshing to see a woman on the front cover of a fantasy novel who doesn’t look like she’s going to need chiropractic assistance in the near future…
The canals and streets of Venice are wonderfully creepy and dilapidated, a thin veneer of respectability and opulence covering the dark heart of the city like a close-fitting mask. London is a sprawling, noisy mess, but Venice holds her cards close to her chest, the perfect city for spies and intrigue.
The action dips a little when the characters are at sea, shuttling between France, London, Venice, and the skrayling enclave on the island of Sark, and the whole book does have that “middle of a trilogy” feel – things set up in the first book are largely ignored, while new threads are weaved and then left undone, presumably to be picked up in the last book of the series. Having said that, there is progression here – Mal and Coby’s relationship takes a surprising turn, while Ned grows into his character and reveals previously unexpected talents, but it does rather feel like the book is marking time until the climax.
“The Alchemist of Souls” was brilliant, and if you enjoyed it “The Merchant of Dreams” comes highly recommended, but I have the feeling “The Prince of Lies” is going to blow them both out of the water. Roll on November!