Before I became re-enamored with fantasy, I was an avid reader of historical fiction (or as I like to call it — fantasy for people who don’t want to be seen reading fantasy). I read Shogun (Clavell), Pride of Carthage (Durham), Musashi (Yoshikawa), Gates of Fire (Pressfield), and their ilk. It’s exciting to me now when I come across a fantasy concoction that blends that historical sensibility with the speculative. Anne Lyle’s debut novel is just that kind of brew. Set in historical Elizabethan England, Alchemist of Souls of Souls shows what might have happened if the Virgin Queen had children, secured her rule, and made an alliance with a heretofore undiscovered alien race from the New World.
Lyle’s protagonist is Mal Catlyn, a down on his luck swordsman with a checkered past and an unfortunate family connection to Catholicism. The skraylings, a new race from the New World, have been allied with England for a generation, but an ambassador had yet to treat with the Queen. With word of the first skrayling delegation, Mal is hand picked, rather unexpectedly, to serve as bodyguard during the controversial visit. Assassination attempts are the least of his concern as layers of espionage and political jockeying begin to pull him in unexpected directions.
Along with the intrigue, Lyle sets the stage with a tournament of stage performances in honor of the ambassador’s visit. Put on by the three most esteemed theater troops in London, the tournament becomes a set piece for the larger story. The theater sections are told mostly through the eyes of Coby, a young woman hiding behind men’s clothing, and connects to Mal’s thread through his friend Ned, a scribe with a penchant for theater men. Between the three of them they’ll be asked to prevent a conspiracy at the core of the monarchy.
Alchemist of Souls embraces that historical tone from the opening pages and left me wondering whether I was reading a fantasy at all.
There’s one requirement in a historical novel and that’s tone. Accuracy is important. I certainly don’t want auto-loading revolvers running around 16th century London, but it’s secondary to capturing the tone of the time. For Elizabethan London that means a lot of things — religious tension, theater, foreign conflict, and the economic expansion from the New World, to name a few. While some modern affectations of character and language assert themselves from time to time, Alchemist of Souls embraces that historical tone from the opening pages and left me wondering whether I was reading a fantasy at all. References to the recent death of Christopher Marlowe, a tense tennis match, and the dropping of Bloody Mary’s name all lend themselves to setting an ambiance that’s decidedly Elizabethan.
Brought into this authentic setting are the skraylings, a ‘race’ that I was surprised to learn was, at least tangentially, pulled from Norse history. Encountered in the 11th century, the skraeyling were a people of the region known as Vinland (maybe Newfoundland?), about whom almost nothing else is known. In Alchemist of Souls the skraylings are far more fleshed out, exhibiting an entirely different evolutionary line than humanity. Part Native American, part alien, part alchemist wizard things, they exist as Lyle’s fantastic element and the impetus by which the narrative moves, woven into Mal’s childhood and hopelessly intertwined with his future. In addition, Lyle adds characters who exist in the historical space. Mal struggles with his familial responsibilities and his duty to the crown. Coby fights her lie and her faith. Ned reconciles his lifestyle to a world that rejects it. These values are fought against and embraced in equal measure, and are so tied to the period setting that they could not have existed else wise.
Mysterious circumstances combined with historical authenticity and the strange, Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls of Souls is a debut I can strongly recommend.
Overall the Alchemist of Souls has great pace, moving through equal parts political intrigue, bursts of action, and fear of discovery for Coby and Ned. There are moments where Lyle jumps forward in a plot line too suddenly, making a supposition or connection that a character don’t seem quite ready to make. Likewise, I raised an eyebrow or two at the social progressiveness of many of the characters who for the time are significantly more accepting of others than I might expect. These are minor complaints and seem reasonable solutions to difficult problems, most notably the fact that close minded bigotry isn’t a lot of fun for a socially progressive audience.
Mysterious circumstances combined with historical authenticity and the strange, Anne Lyle’s Alchemist of Souls of Souls is a debut I can strongly recommend. It will stand out in the Angry Robot catalog as a title with broad appeal across a wide swathe of genre readers, as well as a real departure from many of their titles that eschew genre classification.
In the course of reading this (on my Kindle), I kept engaging with the author, trying to find how and where the history had changed from our own (besides the obvious existence of the alien race). It was a fun game, and it showed Anne definitely did her research in getting the period right.
Thanks for the lovely review, Justin! With regard to the gay characters, you might be interested in a blog post I wrote on the subject – I may have played things down a bit, but with sound historical justification:
Okay! Been watching this one for a while – it looked intriguing and unique, but it’s just been bumped up in my audio queue due to the enthusiasm.
A little sharp as a review, but pretty fair overall – I very much enjoyed this book as well. It’s an especially good example of a very engaging fantasy that doesn’t have to aspire to the “death of gods and empires”. An intelligent but fun adventure story.
This book has been very high on my list of things I need to check out for a while now. Great review as always, Justin.