The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

April 5, 2012

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?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal Catlyn his soul.

Maliverny ‘Mal’ Catyln is a suitably heroic sort and he certainly typifies what you would expect from an Elizabethan dashing blade.  Driven to protect Queen and country, he throws himself into his role and won’t let anything stop him. Mal has a  roguish charm and his mix of easy manner and strong resolve make him a perfect protagonist.

Though Mal is an interesting lead, there were a couple of other characters that I was more taken with. Coby is a teenage girl who is forced to live her life pretending to be a boy, calling herself Jacob, in order to survive on her own. She is intelligent, inquisitive and has a quick wit. It struck me that she was far more sensible, and likeable, than the vast majority of her male contemporaries. The other character who struck a chord is Ned Faulkner, Mal’s best friend. I’ve not read a lot of fantasy fiction that features an openly gay character and I liked the dynamic that exists between Ned and Mal. There is an unrequited love that has a genuinely bittersweet air. Through Cody and Ned the author gets the chance to deliver some subtle, yet insightful, commentary on the nature of gender politics and sexuality in the 16th century.

One of the big questions that the novel examines is the coming together of different cultures. Initally the skraylings appear to be a slightly creepy, supernatural race, and their civilisation is completely alien to everyone that comes into contact with them.  Through his role as bodyguard, Mal gets to learn the secrets of their race. He gets to learn that in many ways the skraylings are not that dissimilar to us.

Anne Lyle’s writing manages to very effectively portray the differing faces of Tudor era England. In some scenes the reader will find themselves in the midst of a bawdy romp while in another there is the spectacle of all the pomp and ceremony of the age. Amongst all this decadence, there are also glimpses of the dark conspiracies and petty intrigues that existed at that time. Politics and murder walk hand in hand and it is up to Mal and his friends to discover the truth behind the lies.

One of my favourite things that about novels that have a historic setting is the language that an author gets the opportunity to play with. I can’t help but smile when I am faced with a hey nonny nonny. The Alchemist of Souls contains so many wonderful turns of phrase and scattering these throughout the text adds an extra layer of depth to the narrative. These little Shakespearean touches are a heck of a lot of fun.

Over on the Angry Robot website, author of  The Sword of Albion, Mark Chadbourn, has this to say about the novel.

“In her terrific debut novel, Anne Lyle conjures up a magical Elizabethan England of seedy glamour, long shadows, pulsating romance and heart-stopping adventure. The Alchemist of Souls is the calling card of a great new talent in the fantasy field.” 

Even after reading only the first few chapters I quickly realised that he was one hundred percent right. My advice Mr Chadbourn – you had better watch your back, you’ve got some serious competition.

The Alchemist of Souls published by Angry Robot and is already available in the US. The novel is released globally today.

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