Anne Lyle’s debut The Alchemist of Souls is the first in a trilogy of alternate history fantasies set in Elizabethan England. Tudor explorers returning from the New World bring back a name from Viking legend – Skrayling. Ships quickly follow bringing Native American goods and an Ambassador to London – but what do these magical beings want? What does this have to do with down on his luck swordsman Mal Catlyn? With assassination plots rife, and spies everywhere, what Catlyn discovers may have grave consequences for Elizabeth’s England – and for his own soul.
The Alchemist of Souls’ setting in Elizabethan England instantly gives the book a character and creates a world for our heroes to play in. Meticulously researched, Lyle’s London is a living, breathing, smelling success. Characters from all walks of life – from young street urchins through to royalty are featured in this fusion of cultures. It is to the story’s benefit that the worlds of royalty and the impoverished actors frequently rub shoulders, as the interaction between the two keeps the momentum of the plot going as we see events from two different viewpoints. Guest appearances from Walsingham and the Queen provide some tense scenes as well as building this rich historical picture.
Our main character, Mal Catlyn, moves from reluctantly doing his duty through to full-blooded conviction. Dependable and trustworthy despite the odds, he is one of the more successfully painted characters of the novel. Some of the others, especially the supporting characters, can fall flat and two-dimensional. The highlight of the characterisation however, is the partnership between Kiiren and Catlyn and how this develops over the story.
The visiting Skrayling delegation, and ensuing assassination attempts are action-packed and paced well. The arrival of these noble creatures, and the creation of their own subculture is fascinating to see unfold, and the development specifically of Kiiren is a joy to see throughout the book, his mannerisms and behaviour rounding his character out – perhaps more so than some of the human characters.
Whilst the plot is always moving, there are times when the pace slows down a touch too much and events begin to drag slightly. Whilst a breather from some of the events is required, at times I did find my attention wandering, more so because I wanted to get back to the main plot than boredom. I suppose this is testament to Lyle’s plotting that the main story is so engaging that it grabs you at every stage.
Everyone has their secrets, which at times makes it very difficult to get track at times of what each character should or shouldn’t know. The story does not shy away from the issue of sexuality in Elizabethan England either – many of the characters are homosexual and openly practising homosexual relationships. I presume this is a thread that will get picked up on in later books, as it did not serve much of a purpose other than to add some tension in certain scenes. Indeed some of the characters are very tolerant of an attitude which at the time could be fatal. Lyle has, however, written a fascinating blog post on this subject on her website.
On balance, The Alchemist of Souls is a very enjoyable read, carefully researched and built and delivers on intrigue, action and flavour. No doubt it will be compared to Mark Chadbourn’s Will Swyfte novels, but The Alchemist of Souls is able to stand up on its own two feet with a fun and tangible world. A confident start from a debut author – I’m sure the next excursion will develop this world whilst remaining as enjoyable.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Alchemist of Souls three strokes out of five:
The Alchemist of Souls is available now from Angry Robot Books in paperback or e-book. The sequel will be available in 2013.