THE ALCHEMIST OF SOULS by ANNE LYLE
PB, 508 pages, Angry Robot
“The Alchemist of Souls” is Anne Lyle’s debut novel, and I’d been drawn to reading it after hearing her read an extract at BristolCon last year, sucked in by what little I’d heard about the setting and characters. The novel takes place in an alternate version of Elizabethan England. Mourning the death of her husband and father of her two sons, Robert Dudley, Queen Elisabeth has retreated into seclusion in her old age, while explorers to the New World have been followed home by skraylings, non-human creatures of Viking legend. The skraylings set up trading camps in London, and send an ambassador to the court of the aging Queen.
Maliverny Catlyn, down-on-his-luck swordsman and secret Catholic, is desperate for money to treat his sick brother. He is plucked from the streets for reasons unknown to him and appointed as the bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador as he judges a series of completely plays written to honour his visit. It is in this capacity that he meets Jacob Hendricks, the young tireman of a company of travelling players, who has secrets of his own. Conspiracy and counter-conspiracy weave around Mal and Coby, and the skraylings and the nobility are in the thick of it, tangled in a dangerous game that could cost Mal more than his life.
Tudor-era settings seem to be under-used in fantasy, which is a shame, because when they’re done well, as they are in “Alchemist of Souls”, they add a rich extra depth to the genre. Lyle brings life to the grimy back-alleys, the theatres and the taverns of alt-Elizabethan London in a way that’s totally convincing, and her characters – financially-embarrassed Mal, luckless Ned, shy, secretive Coby – are full and fascinating (I’d also like to add a small “mmmm” for the cover 😉 ). Even the skraylings, who could have become cliché “aliens”, are given room to breathe and grow.
Recommended for fans of Ellen Kushner’s wonderful “Swordspoint” (and if you haven’t read that, put it on your wish list right now), and Mary Gentle’s “1610- A Sundial in a Grave”, which had a similar theatrical setting and thrilling combination of magic and history. The sequel, “The Merchant of Dreams” will be out later in the year. Give yourself a treat and catch up now.