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Judith Merkle Riley

REVIEW:  The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley

REVIEW: The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley

In 1556 France, Queen Catherine de Medici spies on her husband, King Henri II, and his lover, Diane de Poitiers. Driven nearly mad by jealousy, the queen, who is “very fond of do-it-yourself magic,” is frustrated with her sycophantic, possibly duplicitous court astrologer’s ineffective powers, until he reveals his knowledge of the magical object called the Master of All Desires. This is a centuries-old box that contains the living head of Menander the Undying–a magus who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life. Anyone in possession of the sharp-tongued, mean-spirited and unpleasant head may have their wishes granted, but only by selling their own soul in the process.

Through a series of clever plot twists, Menander winds up in the hands of Sibille Artaud de La Roque, a gritty girl from the provinces, who refuses to make a wish, thereby halting Menander’s destructive path. Sibille and her aunt, the remarkable, independently wealthy Pauline Tournet, endeavor to rid themselves of Menander, with assistance from Nostradamus. With the queen in pursuit of Menander, and Nostradamus aiming to destroy it, can a national crisis be averted and true love prevail?

Dear Readers,

I’ve been rationing my Merkle Rileys but when I saw Sourcebooks was reissuing this title, I decided it was the time to read it. Having now finished this one, I’ve only got two more yet to read. Gulp. If anyone has any suggestions for “If you like Judith Merkle Riley” please let me know.

the-master-of-all-desires1After reading the back blurb, I wasn’t at all sure how this book would go. The reviews for it seemed generally positive but with a plot built around sorcery, prophecy, the occult, a living head in a box and Great People Who Wield Power and can have little people killed without blinking an eye, anything goes.

Merkle Riley manages to make the story funny, entertaining, and educational. But the main thing I took away from it is trepidation about having the means to have your wishes granted. True, there is no magical Menander the Mage who for a horrible price will grant exactly – and only – what you ask of him but I often wonder how the lives of the winners of these multimillion lotteries will emerge on the other side of cashing that check. “Master of All Desires” gives a heartbreaking look at the human cost of avariciousness, entitlement and greed.

The initial set-up takes a while to be fully established as there are numerous characters who must be introduced and relationships delineated. The book didn’t truly kick into gear for me until around chapter 8 when the young Sibille arrives in Orleans to try and save her father from being burned alive as a heretic. It’s not until then that she finally meets up with her auntie again after having encountered a pissy Nostradamus on the road. Until then, Sibille had – I’ll be frank – seemed a bit of a “full of herself” ninny. When rich, eccentric Auntie Pauline bursts into the narrative, it really picks up steam.

Very quickly, I realized that the younger set in this book were going to often be portrayed as nitwits, gobsmacked fools and lovesick moon calves. Fine with me as the elders were the ones who truly grabbed my attention and ran the show. Heck, even Menander had more sarcastic black humor and sly one liners than those caught up in Love’s Young Dream.

No, it’s Auntie Pauline – with her household of ghosts who haunt her due to her dead pirate husband’s actions, “Italian banker newly converted to Frenchman” Monsieur Montvert – who must juggle two lovesick and idiot children while financing the French King’s foreign wars, Queen Catherine – who loves DIY sorcery and has the cold nerves of steel to think she can manipulate history to suit her and – he’s my favorite – Michel de Nostradame who often seems little more than a crabby old man with a dislike of travel, dodgy inns, cheap wine and cheaper royalty – that is until he communes with the angel Anael and manages to save at least a few people from being trampled by the malignant forces let loose by greed.

I laughed a lot while reading this book but it’s definitely got a darker side to it as well. The characters are flawed – sometimes to the point of almost being unlikeable in the case of Diane de Poitiers, Queen Mary of Scotland and Menander – but interesting nonetheless. Before starting to read it, I would suggest referring to a reliable historical account of 16th century Europe to brush up on all the political maneuvering and players as it will help in understanding the plot and the importance of the various wishes made over the course of the story. While this isn’t the book I would suggest for Merkle Riley newbies to begin with – go with “The Oracle Glass” or “A Vision of Light” – it’s definitely worth eventually trying. B


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REVIEW: The Serpent Garden by Judith Merkle Riley

REVIEW: The Serpent Garden by Judith Merkle Riley

Dear Mrs. Riley,

As I look back on the books of yours that I’ve read, two central themes stand out. 1) How helpless women were during most of history and 2) how it’s better for the little people to get out of the way of the powerful ones when those people are throwing their weight around. “The Serpent Garden” is no exception.

Susanna Dallet thinks she’s a happily – well, sort of happily, and she does try with The Good Wyfe’s Book of Manners – married woman. Her childhood nurse Nan knows differently. In fact, almost everyone in London knows that Master Dallet is a swine who’s dallying with a married lady and who only married Susanna for the painting secrets her father taught her. It takes his dead body delivered by his mistress’s husband’s men along with all his creditors descending on Susanna for her to learn the truth. And then what is she going to do? Women aren’t allowed to be master painters and she’s got bills to pay.

And this is where she begins to break the law, get in trouble by becoming involved with the High and Mighty men of the day and find love. Though of course she doesn’t know it then. By the time she and her true love evade the men trying to kill them in Paris, they’ll have rubbed shoulders with Archbishop Wolsey, Henry VIII, his sister Princess – and later Queen of France then Duchess of Suffolk – Mary Tudor, most of the French court, most of the English court, a horrid lawyer, and a truly horrid magistrate, antiquarian, and master of the conjuration of demons by the method of Honorius. Plus the Priory of Sion, an angel, cherubs and a lower class demon with style aspirations!

There are many times when Susanna will lament the fact that she’s got tangled up in the affairs of great men and women. Several instances when she’ll get pissed at the man she ultimately ends up falling in love with while he gets pissed back. And lots of things she’ll end up doing to support and save herself and others that would never have crossed her mind to imagine doing.

The book is rich in detail – sometimes almost too rich as we often get a run down on the fabulous clothes of the rich and famous every single time they appear in a scene – and portrays life early in the reign of Henry VIII at the level of the lower and middle classes. Life was hard then for anyone but especially hard for unfortunate women left at the mercy of a fate with no strong and caring man to look out for them. And even those men often viewed women as empty headed baubles fit only for bearing children. Men were against them, laws were against them and often fellow women were suspicious of any woman who broke ranks. It’s little wonder Susanna feels overwhelmed as she tries to support herself and Nan.

But Susanna is no saintly, long suffering woman nor is she a strident proto-feminist. She is a woman of her times who enjoys good food, a warm house and someone to love her. For her, painting is breathing and she could no more give it up than stop living. She’s also got a delicious, sly sense of humor.


Little steps lead to the pit, they say, and I must admit I was overfond of nice clothes and the better sort of wine, to say nothing of the great wickedness of making indelicate paintings for the sake of the handsome sound of money chinking in my purse on market day. They led me a long way, my sins, from a life of quiet if rather boring virtue studying drawing and the life of the Virgin in my father’s house to the worldly deviousness required of a limner to gentlefolk and paintrix to princes. Ah, that sounds grand, doesn’t it? Vanity, yes, that’s another sin of yours, Susanna, I say to myself. And that doesn’t even count the greater ones. Sloth. Shameless deception. And carnal love. But though I know I should repent, when I think on temptation and where it led me, I find it hard to be sorry.

I can easily see how this book would not be for all tastes. It’s told from several PsOV, first person through third, and is almost too detailed in places. Then there’s the whole paranormal/supernatural aspect of a demon, two imps, an angel, several cherubs and in the end, two archangels. Any or all of these aspects might be deal breakers depending on the reader. But the characters were so wonderful, the setting so rich, the emotions so universal that none of it mattered to me.

I love that Susanna uses her wits and skills to save the day yet that she doesn’t turn into a Wonder Woman. In the end, she’s still got her faults and fancies. Roger loves her for who she is and by books end, he knows exactly who she is and that she won’t change. Nor would she be happy or they have the kind of marriage they could have if he were to ask, much less demand, change of her.

For me “The Serpent’s Garden” is a strong B+ though I would hope potential readers would keep what I’ve said about it in mind should they decide to give it a try. Despite reusing the two themes of the book from several previous novels, I think you manage to keep your plots fresh, your characters lively and your books delightful.


This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.