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?
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.
After 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