The Master of All Desires
by Judith Merkle Riley
Viking Press, 1999, ISBN: 0670884502
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Nostradamus once, briefly, much to his regret, possessed the Undying Head of Menander the Magus. He now has the means to discover the future, although not necessarily the parts that he wants to discover, or when he needs to discover them, because the spirit that does this for him is rather grandly disorganized. Now ("now" being 1556), the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, wants the Head--which rather inconveniently falls into the possession of Sibelle Artaud de la Roque, a young lady of good family and no fortune, who is traveling to Paris to plead for the life of her father, and, not incidentally, hoping to avoid detection as the murderer of her unwanted and regrettably forceful betrothed. This state of affairs is disagreeable in various ways to everyone--the Queen, Nostradamus, Sibelle, the Queen's fortune-teller and his brother, Diane de Poitiers, the King, Sibelle's aunt, Sibelle's assorted suitors.
It's difficult to say much about this book without falling into the temptation of saying too much. The Undying Head of Menander the Magus has the power to grant wishes--but he grants wishes exactly as they are asked, and no wish can be perfectly expressed with no hidden loopholes to leave openings for the wisher to be made truly miserable. Menander's preferred mode of operation is to keep granting wishes until the wisher has wished himself into eternal damnation. Nostradamus, we gradually realize, is the rare, possibly unique, individual who recognized the trap very early, and stopped making wishes. Catherine de Medici, on the other hand, is lost before she begins, wanting the unattainable too badly to resist anything. One can have some sympathy for her in her struggle with Diane de Poitiers, but the really interesting struggle here is Sibelle's, and Nostradamus' efforts to help her while also trying to avert even worse catastrophes.
This is an interesting and enjoyable historical fantasy, and I'll be looking for more of Riley's work.