Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Vouched Books! The Night's Masque series by Anne Lyle

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal Catlyn his soul.

Available on: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | The Book Depository
Find Anne Lyle on: Her Website | Twitter | Facebook
Publisher: Angry Robot
Genre and Content Rating: Historical Fantasy, 18+

A wonderful combination of fantasy, mystery, and revised history, The Alchemist of Souls was a surprising and highly enjoyable read. Though the setting is Tudor England, Queen Elizabeth is a widow with two sons; instead of the Church and Continent relations, trade between England and the New World are of dire import—and not with Native Americans in the traditional sense but with skraylings (or skræling), the mysterious, northernmost America people from Norse legends; and, of course, theater is the highlight of the season, shared between the social classes, but serving as a backdrop for political schemes, in which the players are the pawns, playwrights like Christopher Marlowe were the spies, and the theater location and name aren't as important as the theater attendees.

Mal Catlyn, a mercenary with questionable family and religious ties, is only on the lookout for his next paycheck so he can provide for his insane twin brother. When he's recruited as a bodyguard for the skrayling ambassador judging the next set of plays, Mal must get over his understandable aversion to the little-known foreigners to avoid surmounting debts ... and the noose, for he must also spy on the skraylings for any hints of the "demonic." His growing respect for Ambassador Kiiren skews his mission as well as values he never knew he had, and he learns about a connection with the skraylings that no man—English or not—would like.

Although it took me a couple chapters to really get into the storyline, I was drawn in by Anne Lyle's descriptions and tone. The daily life and backstage happenings of building a theater were well done. The dialog nuances were lovely, and I really appreciated the dry wit and how the meanings were left to the characters' (and reader's) interpretations, with the threats more dangerous because they were left unsaid.

I also enjoyed the gender and sexuality theme and thought it was clever. Alongside Queen Elizabeth as no Virgin Queen and with men playing and dressing as women, the only female, Jacomina "Coby" Hendricks, masquerades as a boy and has no period—which, at first, I found hard to believe, but the reason is hinted at near the end. Mal and his best friend, Ned, have sexual history, and the skraylings find their soul mates in either gender—mainly male/male since the women, though revered, reside only on their homeland.

All but one of the characters, for me, were fleshed out—flawed yet endearing, shown through great dialog and action rather than told through the narrative, and not typical or too predictable. Ambassador Kiiren's quiet understanding and tolerance made him approachable despite his startling features. Coby keeps her pants (and her virtue) even though she finds the man she loves and trusts (Mal). Gabriel, one of the theater's star players, Ned's lover, and as gorgeous as a fallen angel, is more dynamic than he appears at first glance. Even Ned's flimsy integrity made him real, and Mal's twin, Sandy (short for Alexander), draws sympathy and, later, a smile.

Mal, on the other hand, I didn't find as a strong character or hero compared to his friends. From the first scene, I pictured Jim Caviezel, but instead of badass Count of Monte Cristo, he's more ignorant Edmund Dantes. As a mercenary and protector, Mal's too aloof and doesn't think ahead. (Who takes a political target to a crowded fair?) He can fight well enough, but always thinking of his brother first, he endangers those around him and often needs saving himself. Sadly, I sometimes wondered what the other characters saw in him. He was missing something ... integral, and maybe that was the point—he is missing a piece of himself.

I liked the progression of his and Kiiren's friendship, though, and what little character growth he had.

I did guess the villain early on, which is always a shame. The ending left something to be desired, too. There was plenty of mystery and intrigue throughout the book, but more questions than answers surface the last couple scenes—not a huge issue, considering The Alchemist of Souls is part of a series, but I would've liked a more solid wrap-up.

Overall, an fantastic read and debut. I'd recommend this to (historical) urban fantasy lovers who enjoy reading between the lines.

LUV'NV Rating: Rating as of 12/18/2012: 4.1 out of 5 stars

Exiled from the court of Queen Elizabeth for accusing a powerful nobleman of treason, swordsman-turned-spy Mal Catlyn has been living in France with his young valet Coby Hendricks for the past year.

But Mal harbours a darker secret: he and his twin brother share a soul that once belonged to a skrayling, one of the mystical creatures from the New World.

When Mal’s dream about a skrayling shipwreck in the Mediterranean proves reality, it sets him on a path to the beautiful, treacherous city of Venice – and a conflict of loyalties that will place him and his friends in greater danger than ever.

Available on: Now on Amazon | Barnes and Noble | The Book Depository
Publisher: Angry Robot
Genre and Content Rating: Historical Fantasy, 18+

Impressed with the first installment of the series, I picked up The Merchant of Dreams with high hopes and was a bit disappointed. Though Anne Lyle captured Venice with stellar description and feeling, the plot and main relationship and character development fell to the wayside—for me, at least.

The Merchant of Dreams picks up a year after The Alchemist of Souls, with Mal and Coby following his dream of a skrayling shipwreck, only for them to discover a massacre of skraylings. They sail to Kiiren and Sandy to drop off the lone survivor and fruitlessly discern what happened before they return to England with Sandy in tow. Due to a declining presence of skraylings in England and the alarming, possible trade agreement between the skraylings and Italy, they then sail to Venice—separately.

After living together in Provence, France, for a year, Mal and Coby's relationship is no closer than what it was in The Alchemist of Souls, and, though I'm glad it shows they don't "need" each other to grow, there was very little of them together in The Merchant of Dreams. The ending might justify the separation, but their words were empty and their actions unbelievable, especially after Mal's relationship with a certain courtesan. How can his sexual encounters not affect any of his relationships?

Similar to the previous book, I found Mal the weakest character and link in the entire story. He never seems to learn anything or suffer the consequences, and once again, I felt that he was lucky—he's saved by his friends and acquaintances. Confusing and inconsistent, he lacked conviction and any moral standard. I'll take a ruthless and self-righteous villain over an indecisive, float-along hero any day.

I can't even consider Mal the hero. If anyone was, it was Ned, for he learns how to fight and, ultimately, pays a huge price. He really grows and redeems himself after his cowardice and betrayal in The Alchemist of Souls. I also enjoyed Coby's transition into a woman, Gabriel's inner strength and warmth, Sandy's willfulness. Even Charles Catyln, the long-lost older brother—his selfishness made him stronger as a character.

Gabriel's love for Ned was heartwarming. The warring emotions between Ned and Mal were palpable. Even Mal's relationship with the courtesan was understandable, though I didn't like the use of "prick" in the sex scene—it was completely jarring. Most of the relationships were lovely, actually. They just overshadowed Mal and Coby's.

There are so many things to like about the book: the use of more historical figures, the guiser from book one making an appearance, how another guiser was introduced in this installment, Walsingham, the Queen spymaster's, daughter had a unique role and history that connected the two books, the correlation between Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and this book. So many wonderful details but that are never followed through or expanded upon. Even the major events don't feel as joined as seamlessly as they did in the first book. The plot and series' arc felt unresolved and disjointed because of the ... clutter.

Anne Lyle paints a vivid picture and creates some great characters—so much so that I might pick up the next book, but only with the hope that she focuses a bit more on strengthening the main character and relationship while wrapping up the little plots.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Angry Robot, for providing the eARC.

LUV'NV Rating: Rating as of 12/18/2012: Not yet rated