When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?
When I first heard of Anne Lyle’s debut novel The Alchemist of Souls and read the synopsis, I was immediately sold. A historical fantasy, set in one of my favourite historical periods? How could I not be intrigued? So when I was able to get my hands on an e-ARC, I was stoked. I was really patient though and waited to read it until closer to the publication date, so my review wouldn’t be super early. When I finally started reading it, my expectations were set pretty high. Did Lyle’s first outing meet my expectations? Yes, yes, it did! I absolutely fell in love with the characters, especially Coby, and I even gave up precious sleep just after Cat was born so I could finish the book. If that isn’t an indication of how much I enjoyed this book, I don’t know what is.
Lyle presents us with an alternate history vision of Elizabethan London. In this version Elizabeth married the love of her life, Robert Dudley, and had children, thus securing the succession for the Tudor line. In addition, when the New World was discovered, not only did the English discover rich, new lands, which provided them with precious commodities such as tobacco and furs, but they also encountered a different race of intelligent beings called the skraylings. These skraylings are very different and possess a magic, something that both intrigues and frightens the English. I loved how Lyle incorporated the skraylings and their magic into the narrative; she doesn’t go into infodumpy over-explanation. When the reader needs to know something, she reveals it, otherwise she leaves things unexplained. In this manner, there remains plenty to discover about these mysterious beings in the coming books in the trilogy.
Next to the political and courtly angle of Mal’s job as the skrayling ambassador’s bodyguard, Lyle adds a theatrical angle to the narrative. We follow a company of players in their preparations to perform a play for the new ambassador. I adored this story line and Lyle draws the theatre and players vividly. Not only are there nods to the great playwrights of the age, we also get a look at how a theatre was built, which I found fascinating as I kept flashing back to my visits to the reconstructed Globe in London. Lyle’s painting of the characters that people the theatre, such as the boy players Philip and Oliver, the ensemble’s star player Gabriel Parrish and the gruff leader of the company, Master Naismith, is great. They each come to life and give us a glimpse of Elizabethan mores and society, albeit a more liberal part of it. Similarly vivid and evocative is Lyle’s portrayal of Elizabethan London. I could picture places clearly in my mind, even the places she invented. The smell of the streets, the sounds, the clutter, it was all there, without Lyle dropping into huge, detailed, descriptive paragraphs very often.
As stated before, I fell in love with Lyle’s characters. I liked Mal’s understated, gruff manner, which was belied by his care for his twin and Ned. Mal is a competent swordsman, with a hinted at past of fighting on the continent as a mercenary. I found his development very interesting and I liked his almost undesired feelings of sympathy for Kiiren, the skrayling ambassador. I really like how he comes to like this mysterious creature, despite his dislike and fear of the skraylings. Next to Mal, Coby was my favourite. I loved this clever girl and Lyle’s use of trope of the heroine disguised as a boy as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. The juxtaposition between Coby and the boy actors hired to play females on stage at times leads to funny situations, such as Master Naismith’s kitchen maid trying to seduce Coby. At the same time, it also adds a lot of tension to the narrative as Coby is constantly afraid of her secret being found out. Coby is a determined, self-sufficient young woman and I liked how she both kept to her upbringing and as a consequence is a bit priggish about certain things and at the same time breaks all the rules cross-dressing as a boy and running around London as part of a rescue effort for both Mal and the ambassador. Said ambassador, Kiiren, remains mysterious, but I really liked him as well. He is kind, kinder than he needs to be, even if at times his kindness is self-serving. He has a sense of humour and serves both as a window onto skrayling society and onto Elizabethan England, as he provides explanations about the skraylings and needs explanations about things he encounters in London he doesn’t understand.
I can’t think of a bad thing to say about The Alchemist of Souls other than that I now have to wait till spring next year to find out what is next! There is a lot going on in the book, lots of conspiracies and spying and plots within plots, but Lyle guides the narrative with a deft hand and keeps the reader from becoming confused. The story packs a punch, not just action and intrigue-wise – of which there is lots – but emotionally as well, as we see Mal dealing with the truth about him and his twin and having to make some tough decisions as to their future, that are both heartbreaking and leave the reader hopeful. I really enjoyed the time I spent with Mal, Coby and the rest of the characters of The Alchemist of Souls and I can’t wait for The Merchant of Dreams next year. It’s one of my top reads so far this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it on my best reads-list at the end of the year!
The Alchemist of Souls is a book that will appeal to both fans of fantasy and of historical fiction. Lyle manages to blend both of these genres in a masterful way, where the fantastical elements are an enhancement of history and don’t stand out as sore thumbs. This first instalment of The Night’s Masque series is out from Angry Robot Books in the US now and will be released in the UK on April 5th.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.