Merchants of Milan by Edale Lane

Book One of the Night Flyer Trilogy invites you into the lush world of 1502 Milan during the Italian Renaissance. Wealthy merchants had almost as much power as the ruler, and the rule of law did not apply to them. It begins a little slow with a prologue full of implication rather than action. That scene, though, sets the stage for Florentina’s dual life as the tutor of two bright children and a black-clad dagger of vengeance starting with the first chapter.

The characters are well rounded, their personalities revealed through interactions more than description. Don Benetto earns my hatred from the first scene, but many others made me care about them. Though the book really has one main character, Florentina or Fiore, there were many interesting and good people. These include Madelena, who wins Fiore’s heart; Maddie’s brother Alessandro; her children; and many others. Nor is Don Benetto alone in deserving contempt or worse. These characters and more gain control of the narrative for a scene or more, building their story within the greater one.

I knew I’d been drawn in fully when I commented how I didn’t want anything to happen to a secondary character. I have a soft spot for adults who encourage and treasure children, but Fiore and the leading secondary characters had more than that going for them. We get to see how they interact within their world and the choices they make as compared to others with less strength of character.

Nor is the world ignored in favor of fleshing out the characters. This book made me learn something of myself as I commented that the detailed description of clothing and furniture to set the scenes, while well written, might become overwhelming. Then we hit a passage about a Leonardo da Vinci mechanism, and I was fascinated. It’s clearly a matter of preference. However, the description is limited to when something new is introduced and never became too much.

This novel is a cross between a story of vengeance and one of love, but the two plots are intertwined with consequences and risks in both directions. I found the earlier lesbian references awkward, but once we learn Fiore has never acted on her inclination, the awkwardness becomes a matter of character depth, not weak narrative. The romance is a slow awakening, taking Fiore from inclination to love with no detailed open-door scenes.

In contrast, the vengeance plot brings us along to see each strategy and how it’s put into play with the aid of contraptions from her father and da Vinci himself. Her father had been da Vinci’s assistant, and she learned at his side. Fiore is almost a Renaissance Batman (a comment from my notes that made me laugh when I read the Batgirl reference in this morning’s interview) without wealth or freedom from employment to make things easy. Instead, she employs innovation and her understanding of the mechanical and combustive sciences.

The story offers a rich environment full of mystery and danger where law keeping has limited power and the rich are ruled only by their conscience. Precocious children, greed, and upstanding citizens trying to do good add to the mix. I enjoyed both sides of this story and was pleasantly surprised by several of the characters while others lived up to their presented natures. The story is not predictable so much as well seeded with characters who are either consistent or change because of something happening. This makes them, and the world, feel more tangible. The main plots both come to a satisfying end point, but hints and plans lead the reader to the next book in the series.

I have so many more notes, but I’ll stop here with one more comment: Reading Merchants of Milan reminded me of when I picked up Swordpoint by Ellen Kushner. I was looking for a different author and did it by accident, but the story and world sucked me in. Edale Lane does the same.

P.S. I received this Advanced Reader Copy as part of the Other Worlds Inc blog tour in return for an honest review.

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