Judith Merkle Riley,
The Master of All Desires
(Viking, 1999)

Judith Merkle Riley's novel The Master of All Desires once again places a plucky heroine in the midst of a situation not of her choosing and has her find a way through it.

Sibille de la Roche is the eldest daughter of a noble but poor family and a would-be poetess. She is yanked away from her convent education to wed a neighbor who will help relieve her family of debt. But nothing is ever simple for Sibille. When she unintentionally shoots her fiance, she flees to her aunt, the formidable widow of a pirate whose home is haunted by the ghosts of his victims.

Sibille arrives at her aunt's home with an unintended cargo: the Undying Head of Menander, the Master of All Desires. Menander grants wishes, but at a terrible cost to the one making the wish -- think "be careful what you wish for because you might get it."

Sibelle has no intention of making a wish, but the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, is determined to do so, as is the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Sibelle is drawn into a maze of plots and counterplots all the while trying to rid herself of the annoying head. Fortunately, she has no less a personage than Nostradamus to assist her, not to mention the angel Anael whom Nostradamus consults for his prophecies.

Riley's narrative is packed full of vivid detail. The story itself is woven of a number of threads which Riley handles deftly and smoothly until the whole fits together like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. Her characters are well-depicted and realistic, whether drawn from history or her own imagination.

One of the marks of distinction for Riley is her wicked sense of humor, which prevents the book from becoming overinflated and stuffy. The head gripes and whines, completely baffled by Sibelle's lack of interest in making a wish, and a crucial scene featuring Sibelle's dog is as funny as it is chill-inducing. Other humorous touches seem to be lifted right out of commedia dell arte, involving cross-dressing, mistaken identity and clumsy or feckless agents of disaster.

Judith Merkle Riley's The Master of All Desires has adventure, suspense, romance and humor all rolled into a grand and engrossing read, and that's more than anyone could wish for in a novel.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002

Buy it from Amazon.com.