The Merchant of Dreams is the second book in Anne Lyle’s Night’s Masque series, continuing on the adventures of Mal, Coby, Ned, and Gabriel. The book picks up soon after where the other one ended: Mal is still working for Walshingham and Coby is by his side, posing as his manservant. Ned and Gabriel have joined them in the spymaster’s service, getting steadily more and more tangled up in the intrigues of court and the skraylings. They now also have to look after Sandy, Mal’s twin, as his skrayling side struggles to blend with the humans around him.
The relations between the skraylings and England are deteriorating, and fast. Worried about the possible repercussions, Walshingham sends Mal to spy on them in Venice. Taking Ned with him for the journey, Mal leaves Coby and Gabriel to look after his brother, which only causes trouble when Sandy, as Erishen, decides to seek out Lord Grey and the skrayling journal that his father had. Forced to flee to protect Sandy, Coby and Gabriel set off after Mal and Ned on a skrayling ship.
But not all is at it seems, neither in Venice nor on the skrayling ship, and there is more than one party out to get Mal and his friends. With old skrayling grudges surfacing, ancient skrayling souls roaming the streets of Venice, and tangled human politics, Mal and his companions have a lot to deal with. With Mal and Ned travelling together, the past can’t help with resurface and old attractions battle with new ones.
The sexual tension is as real as it gets, with every look, every touch threatening more than what they intended, and, as much as Ned is more than open to a little fun on the side whilst he has to be away from Gabriel, Mal isn’t so willing to betray Coby’s trust. Ned’s advances are only cut short by the obvious dislike Raileigh’s sailors take to him due to his preferences. Meanwhile, miles away from them, Coby can only think of Mal, an ache made all the worse by his identical twin’s presence at her side.
Sandy acts as the most mysterious of the characters. Not quite human anymore, but neither fully skrayling, he is caught in between both worlds and struggling with his very nature. As Erishen seeks answers, and a way to avoid having to return home in his current situation and without his amayi, he embarks himself, Coby, and Gabriel on a dangerous journey that almost sees them all taken back to the skrayling homeland. Their arrival in Venice turns out to be the one thing Mal needed to solve half of his problems which come in the form of an ancient skrayling soul that has been reincarnating endlessly around Venice. After an unexpected encounter with Charles, the brother Mal was using as a cover for his trip to Venice, Mal has to face a past he would have rather left behind. But with skrayling magic threatening the safety of all, Charles and his past as a Hunter may well be the only hope they have of saving the Serene Republic.
Lyle’s prose is as elegant as ever, mixing effortless storytelling with beautifully sweeping descriptions. She takes the reader on a magical journey from London to Venice, mixing the achingly familiar elements of history with the new and often surprising magic of the skraylings. The characterisation is excellent, and Lyle brings to life her characters effortlessly: they are imperfect and flawed, but all the more wonderful for it. She also presents us with the ever absent bisexual character. Mal’s sexuality is fluid and his attraction with Ned is obvious, so is their past together. But Mal is also in love with Coby, whether she is disguised as his manservant or wearing a gown. Mal is a refreshing character who demonstrates that as much as people don’t have to be good or evil, their sexuality doesn’t have to be one way or the other.
With Venice as the set for most of the book, Lyle has the perfect backdrop to her book, with a set that lands itself so perfectly to intrigue, mystery, and adventures. Lyle describes the city beautifully, bringing its many canals and small, narrow streets to life, leading the reader through a fast paced adventure with many twists and turns. The pace picks up more and more until it reaches its climax and a very fast paced ending. The Merchant of Dreams is a worthy sequel to The Alchemist of Souls, packed with intrigue, surprises, adventures, and loveable characters.