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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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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Christine
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 12:10:33

    The site ate my first comment so I am trying again. I love Judith Merkle Riley and I really enjoy this book. While I agree it is not as good as The Oracle Glass (my favorite of hers and one of my all time favorite books) The Master Of All Desires has a lot to recommend itself. Aunt Pauline with her ghosts and her mustache is a fantastic creation. (She and I both share a love or ornate shoes among other things). The plot in the book is so full of undercurrents and past relationships it’s like a spiders web that when finally all unravels leaves the reader with a satisfied “A-ha!” at the end. I enjoy the young couple who while are both a bit self centered, it must be remembered are teenagers who are used like pawns on a chessboard by the adults and have no control over their lives at all. I believed in their romance and felt like a marriage would work in spite of their young ages (which is era appropriate and works in this context). I don’t know if this book is any darker than others. Compare it with the goings on and plots in The Oracle Glass or The Serpent Garden. There is always a fair amount of greed, gore and diablerie present. I love how the author writes the heroes with a mix of ego, learning, bravado and injured pride. It’s so much more interesting than the cool impervious heroes of so many novels. ( The gold standard for me being Florent D’Urbec.)
    I have been following Merkle Riley since A Vision Of Light was first published. After The Master Of All Desires was published I used to check monthly to see when the next book would be coming. Sadly it never did and with the author’s passing now never will. I have been searching for years to find any author who is comparable to Judith Merkle Riley to no avail. The only other author (another favorite) who has the ability to mix the wit, humor and romance in a similar way is Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels although she writes very different books. If you ever encounter another author similar to Judith Merkle Riley please share them!

  2. hapax
    Jul 07, 2013 @ 16:09:43

    Have you tried Katherine Neville? Her books are very different from JMR’s, of course, but they still have that combination of thrills, puzzles, magic, history, a touch of romance, a deeply immersive setting and memorable (if not always likable) female characters. THE EIGHT, her first book, was probably also her best.

  3. Jayne
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 09:01:51

    @Christine: Aunt Pauline is the bomb. And I see what you’re saying about the youngsters – though I still prefer the older characters. I’ve never read anything by Barbara Michaels though I’ve heard her name mentioned as a favorite author.

  4. Jayne
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 09:02:36

    @hapax: No, I’ve never heard of her but I’ll go look her up. Thanks for the rec.

  5. mb
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 13:22:37

    Jayne, you might try Diana Norman. I have her books sharing a mental category with Judith Merkle Riley’s. I started with ‘Fitzempress Law’ and that was a great place to start for me. But they are all good. Patricia Finney, who also writes as P.F. Chisholm is very good. And, please try C.J. Sansom’s Mathew Shardlake series if you haven’t come across already.

    I’m sorry to hear that there will be no more Judith Merkle Riley books. I had missed that.

    Hapax, thanks for the recommendation of Katherine Neville.

    I too am looking for more books of this calibre.

  6. Maili
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 14:29:55

    @hapax: I re-read The Eight (one of my favourites for years) last year and it didn’t date that well. Still a good read if one’s willing to learn to ignore or accept certain aspects (read: the 1980s cultural references), though.

    @mb: I second everything you say about Diana Norman. I have a massive soft spot for The Vizard Mask. And Fitzempress’ Law as it was the first Norman novel I read. You should give Mary Brown’s ‘Playing the Jack’ a try if you haven’t yet.

  7. Jayne
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 17:54:14

    @mb: Oh I totally love Diana Norman and her other pen name Ariana Franklin. I about cried when I heard she’d passed away.

  8. Jayne
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 17:55:25

    @Maili: I’ve actually got the Mary Brown book somewhere. It was recommended to me years ago by an English friend who even tracked down a copy for me. Now I just need to find it…

  9. janelle
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 12:11:38

    I have a few suggestions for books that remind me of Riley in some way or the other.

    For My Lady’s Heart, by Laura Kinsale. this may be the only one that is easily found or in print.

    The others may be harder to find, but worth while.
    Nectar from a Stone, by Jane Guill.
    Great Maria, by Cecelia Holland
    Red Adam’s Lady, by Grace Ingram.
    The Durable Fire, by Sheila Bishop

    and I would really recommend a play, if you like reading plays, by Christopher Fry, called “The Lady’s Not for Burning”

  10. Jayne
    Jul 09, 2013 @ 18:37:21

    @janelle: I love the Kinsale and the Ingram (I’ve got a review here that was posted years ago) and remember reading bits and pieces of the Holland book eons ago. I like Bishop books but can’t remember if I’ve read the one you mention. I’ve never heard of Guill so will have to check that one out. And I’ve heard of the Fry play but never read it. Thanks for the recs!

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