01 March 2014

The Prince of Lies

A review of The Prince of Lies, Book III of The Night’s Masque, by Ann Lyle (Angry Robot, 2013)

This is the third of a series of fantasy novels set in Elizabethan England. The earlier volumes whetted my appetite for more, so I jumped at the chance to review it when Angry Robot made advanced reading copies available through NetGalley.

In the previous volumes Lyle has created an alternative Elizabethan England. The main distinguishing feature of this world is the discovery of another sentient species, the Skraylings in the New World. These creatures possess a range of magical powers, which cause them to be suspected of being in league with the devil. The context of the story is an uneasy truce between England and the Skraylings, which affords England trading advantages and leverage against her Continental enemies. However, a band of renegade Skraylings known as the Guisers is working covertly to gain political power in Europe.

In this volume, Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn continues his struggles against the Guisers whose leader, Jathekkil, has recently reincarnated as the young Prince Henry Tudor. To make matters worse, the Guisers are experimenting with ways to transfer their powers to humans in the hope of creating an army of human sorcerors to support their bid for power.

Anne Lyle writes very well. Her characters are well crafted; in particular, having read the first two novels I have come to care about Mal and his wife Coby. Lyle’s world-building skills are also evident. Her alternative Elizabethan world has been carefully constructed and the magical system of the Skraylings has been thought out well. However, some readers may feel that she has been too faithful in trying to re-create an authentic Elizabethan worldview, for example in the attitudes to women displayed by the central characters including Mal.

The tale winds slowly (across a decade or more) to an action-filled ending. Ultimately, good triumphs over evil (at least for the time being). I have read several reviews of this novel that give the impression that this is the satisfying conclusion to a trilogy. Personally, I felt there were sufficient loose ends to warrant another volume (or possibly series), perhaps set a generation later.

To be honest I found this novel hard going. In spite of the quality of the writing and characterization I found it less easy to read than its predecessors. Lots of things happen in the story – too many things – I feel she has succumbed to the temptation to fill in as much of the story between volume 2 and the climax of this one as she could. The result of this attempt to cover too much ground is fragmentation and little sense that the story is going anywhere.

People who have enjoyed the first two volumes will want to read this one as well, but they may well find it something of an anticlimax.

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