The Master of All Desires
by Judith Merkle Riley
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Viking, 1999, 386 pp, $26.95
This book is a little hard to describe - it's a fantasy, all right, but it's also a rather well-done historical novel set in France in the mid-1500s (the young Mary Queen of Scots has a minor role). The Medici Queen of France who is jealous of her husband's powerful mistress, and the political maneuverings among the top nobility form the underpinnings of the plot.
The Queen wants to get possession of the head of Menander, an ancient Greek sorcerer who acquired immortality but lost his body. For almost 2000 years Menander's living head has been in a box and cursed to grant any wish made of it. Menander has long since turned to evil and invariably finds a way to grant each wish so that the wisher is worse off than before.
The Head of Menander the Undying has passed from magician to magician, some strong enough and wise enough to refuse to wish on it no matter how much Menander tempts them, others falling prey and making a wish - and then making still more wishes to undo the ill effects of the first.
Nostradamus is one such. He wished for the gift of prophecy and was saved from complete disaster by the loss of the Head. He's lived his life known as a prophet, but eternally frustrated since he gains his foreknowledge by his command of Anael, the Spirit of History. Unfortunately, Anael is very disorganized and can only rarely find what Nostradamus asked for, usually answering a question about the victor of an upcoming battle with an apology and an offer of a description of the Scopes Monkey Trial or details on the Meji Restoration's effect on Sino-Japanese trade.
A young woman who is a would-be poet, accidentally gain's Menander's box and is immediately subjected to Menander's constant temptation to use the wishes. Wanting the box herself, the malevolent Queen is after her and ultimately catches her; her family is trying to marry her off to an old man for his money; her father has just been arrested as a heretic; the King's mistress's Italian poisoner has been told to poison her - and a dozen other sub-plots.
And on top of everything else, the book is a bit of a farce, for amidst the serious issues there is a lot of silliness - chases and mistaken identities and the like; Menander is grumpy and querulous as well as being quite, quite evil; half the time the various sorcerers and poisoners achieve exactly the opposite of what they intend, and so on.
This is a very good, though very offbeat, fantasy.
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