BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The enemies of Mal, Coby, Ned and Gabriel lead all four to adventures abroad and confrontations in La Serenissima, Venice.
PROS: Venice as a character; successful expansion of the scope of the first novel; excellent and engaging narration.
CONS: A few plot contrivances weaken the through line somewhat; a character beat seems odd in retrospect.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthy middle volume to an exciting trilogy.
For my summer trip listening pleasure, I listened to the audiobook of Merchant of Dreams rather than read the eBook as I did with the previous entry in the series, The Alchemist of Souls. The narration of the audiobook, by noted narrator Michael Page, is undeniably excellent. Hearing him relate the adventures and travails of Mal, Coby, and their friends and companions was a wonderful way to pass long stretches of driving time.
The stories of Mal and Coby in this alternate, magical Elizabethan world are the heart of Merchant of Dreams and watching their budding, tormented and tangled relationship is a joy because the characters evolve believably. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but suffice it to say that, with one niggling exception, I was satisfied with how the characters developed. I also liked some of the new secondary characters, but it’s the Merchant of Dreams herself who is the most complicated, interesting and intriguing. And, oh yes, very alluring.
The action and adventure sequences were good, playing against some real excellent set-pieces. There is a very good sequence on board a ship, for example, where Mal deftly teaches swordsplay not only to his student, but to the reader as well. Other notable sequences included citadel break-ins, chases through the city of Venice, adventure on the high seas and lots more.
The Alchemist of Souls felt like a sword and sorcery tale, or a quasi-urban fantasy, what with Mal’s swaggering swordsmanship, Coby’s secrets, and the of mystery to the Skraylings. The Merchant of Dreams, however, has a more epic level feel to the magic we see and experience. Mal gets far more involved with that magic as he starts learning it himself. Revelations about the Skraylings, those who oppose them, and those tied to them broaden the urban sword-and-sorcery feel of the first book. You get a real widescreen feel here. And the cover art, showing Coby with a gun and a lamp, is very good. It even depicts an important scene in the novel rather than being just a random image, making it a very good marriage of cover art to the text.
Another strong point in The Merchant of Dreams is the depiction of Venice. This book stands among the best of the many novels I’ve read involving Venice in how it evokes the city. The crazy-quilt layout of canals and plazas, the intrigue, the danger and the mystery around every corner, the sense that Venice is a plastered and freshened up city on the edge of inevitable decline — it all really comes across here. Venice is a fully realized character (a real accomplishment of worldbuilding) and it works very well as the site of several key action sequences.
It was a real treat to see and hear how the author’s work improved from an entertaining and intriguing debut to an even better and polished second novel.