Anne Lyle’s first novel, The Alchemist of Souls, is a big tankard of Elizabethan ale, foaming with intrigue, hidden identities, secret societies, treachery, plots, swordplay and magic. I can’t think of a much better way to spend a few hours than to curl up with this book.
Maliverny Catlyn is half English and half French, but a loyal English citizen. He has been a soldier, but now is reduced to taking jobs guarding warehouses and teaching merchants’ sons swordplay. Mal’s situation is more desperate than most, because he has to pay for the care of his twin brother Sandy, who languishes in Bedlam. Still, when Mal is pressed into the Queen’s service to be a bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador, he has serious second thoughts.
The skraylings are from the New World, and they bring marvelous inventions that look like magic. Skraylings have tattooed faces, oval pupils and long fangs. Their merchants have been trading with the British for years but for the first time they are sending an ambassador, an Outspeaker as they call him. Mal has a strong sense of revulsion when he thinks of the skraylings, but his negative feelings are rooted in guilt. Mal and Sandy’s older brother Henry was part of a secret society called the Huntsmen, who hunted down and killed skraylings.
Some of Mal’s secrets are hidden even from himself. Why is the private language he and Sandy created as youngsters so much like the skrayling language? What is the germ of Sandy’s madness? What do Mal’s dreams mean?
The Alchemist of Souls owes more to literary fiction like Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford than it does to Tolkien, Moorcock or Pullman. Intrigues are not magical; they are gritty undercover operations with double agents, blackmail and extortion. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spy-master, is a secondary but influential character. Lyle fills the book with familiar Shakespearean tropes. There are twins, schemes, a girl in disguise as a boy, and designs on the British crown. Of course there are rival playhouses and the challenges of mounting a play, especially when the Crown declares that there will be a contest between playhouses, for the entertainment of the skrayling ambassador. Oh, there is magic, it just isn’t what’s expected.
For me the best part of the book was the way Mal struggles to understand culture that is alien from his. The skraylings are beyond his frame of reference. Even when Kiiren, the ambassador, explains things, Mal doesn’t grasp them, and when he witnesses a meeting with the skraylings, who seem to work on a consensus basis to some extent, he can’t fathom what’s happening. This reminded me of early Ursula LeGuin novels, where the main character is confronted by a truly alien society and has to break through deeply ingrained beliefs in order to reach understanding.
I also enjoyed the adventures of Hendricks, one of Mal’s compatriots. Hendricks, an orphaned Dutch girl on her own in London, has all the trials of a Viola or a Portia, having to hide not only her gender but her feelings for Mal. Hendricks is brave and smart, but her religious beliefs battle with what she sees at the theater where she works, especially with the example of Ned and Gabriel, two men who love each other, in front of her every day.
There is a plot against the ambassador, but who is behind it? Is it the British merchants, threatened by the competition, or the brutal, xenophobic Huntsmen? The truth cuts closer to the English throne than Mal expects, and deeper to the heart of what the skraylings really are.
The Alchemist of Souls is a first novel, and that shows in some pacing problems, exacerbated by the rotating points of view. In the second half of the book, the pacing settles down, or I got used to it. My biggest disappointment here is the treatment of Elizabeth herself, who is morphed into a grandmother and widow, more Victoria than Gloriana. I understand completely that for her plot to work, Lyle needs the British succession secured, and it can’t be with James of Scotland, but I still missed the old Elizabeth. I also think that Angry Robot did not serve Lyle particularly well with the cover of her book. The male model holding a rapier and a parrying dagger could be standing in any torch-lit alley in any generic fantasy city. I wish Elizabethan London had been evoked more strongly on the cover. People who are expecting a routine sword-and-sorcery novel are going to be surprised by a book about the clash of cultures.
I’m eager to see more of the skraylings; more adventures for Hendricks, Ned and Gabriel; more swordplay and more about the mystery of Mal and Sandy’s lives. This is the first book of the NIGHT’S MASQUE series, so I know I have at least one and probably two more books to look forward to.
Brilliance Audio has The Alchemist of Souls available as an audiobook with Michael Page as the reader. Page has a pleasant young-sounding voice and interprets the accent for Kiiren, the skraeling ambassador, in an interesting way. He has enough of a range to capture the characters of both Mal and Cody, who is a girl in disguise as a boy, completely. Sometimes when I’m reading text I find I’m so caught up in the story that I read too fast and miss details. With Page’s delivery, I had more time to enjoy Lyle’s graceful prose.