One of the great joys of being offered books to review is finding authors who are new to me, even if (as here and in another recent case) the authors are not only splendid, but also sadly now deceased. On the other hand, Judith Merkle Riley wrote six novels in her all too short career, and this is my first encounter with any of them, so it would seem I have much to look forward to yet. This book is hard to categorise, and will probably also turn out to be tricky to review.
Set in 16th Century France at the time of King Henri II and his Queen Catherine de Medici; Michel de Nostre Dame (better known as Nostradamus); and the young Mary, Queen of Scots, The Master of All Desires is part historical novel, part supernatural thriller, and part family intrigue. The romance takes a backseat at times, but then becomes vital to the plot only to be subsumed by other plot elements once again. The narrative style switches from third person omniscient to the first person viewpoint of Sibille the heroine, and back again, and we get occasional excerpts from various contemporary documents authored by the characters. It took me a little while to get the hang of the style, although the characters engaged me from the start, but once the story got going I could hardly put the book down.
Sibille, a gentlewoman and writer of not-very-good poetry, flees an unhappy home after her father is arrested as a suspected heretic and she accidentally shoots her betrothed as he attempts an elopement with her. She hopes to petition the Bishop for her father’s life and thereby win back her father’s favour. Along the way, she is joined by her gigantic ugly dog who refuses to go home and has an encounter with the very grumpy seer, Nostradamus (I love Nostradamus, although his spiritual guide is even more fun).
Things begin to go wrong for Sibille when she accidentally takes possession of a stolen box after its owner is arrested for looking suspicious. The box contains the 1,000-year-old head of the great undead magician Menander the Magus (who is even grumpier than Nostradamus). Menander grants wishes and will stay with the first person to open the box and look upon him, until such time as their attempts to wish the world back to rights drive them to madness and then death. Almost the entire royal court is searching for Menander, so it’s rather unfortunate that the person to open the box is Sibille, who wants nothing to do with this wishing malarkey, especially once she and the aunt she is staying with figure out just how literally Menander has granted previous wishes.
Sibille doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of her looks, although she attracts a fair few admirers (not all of them after either the box or the fortunes bequeathed to her by various relatives), but she does have a much higher opinion than many people of her poetry. Nostradamus, in particular, hates her verses, although many of the rather vacuous ladies of the court claim to love them. Eventually, she falls in love, though the path to a happy ending with her hero is far from smooth. The joy of this book, however, is not so much the romance as watching the machinations of the Royal Court and seeing how each of the rival factions manages to wish for what they think they want, only for it all to go horribly wrong when their wish is granted word for word.
So, if you want a straightforward historical romance, this probably isn’t the book for you. If you want more twists and turns than the most complex Tudor knot garden, this book is highly recommended, provided you can deal with the switches of narrative style.
Lady Sibille never goes looking for trouble, but trouble always seems to find her. When she inadvertently becomes the master of the ancient cursed head of Menander the Magus, she has the power to grant any wish—at a steep price. Bound to the most powerful magical object in medieval France, Sibille finds herself thrust into an action-packed world of occult intrigues, political gamesmanship, Nostradamus, and star-crossed romance. With the help of the handsome Nicolas Montvert, Sibille must discover a way to free herself and France from Menander’s malignant powers.
Read an excerpt.