Friday, 22 March 2013

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

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.

From the moment you open the pages of Anne Lyle’s debut, you are immediately submerged in Elizabethan London, as though stepping through a door back in time. It is an interesting era to use for a historical fantasy, as it is one many people have a passing knowledge of, but Anne’s passions for the people and culture of the time really shine through.

The story starts off with Malverny Catlyn, recently of the army, currently out of work, and desperately trying to find some way to pay for the fees to keep his twin, Sandy, in Bedlam Hospital. Luck starts to turn his way when he is given a new commission, but when he learns he is to become the bodyguard of the Skrayling Ambassador, one of the arrivals from the New World, he is determined to get out of it, and calls in a favour from an old school acquaintance who just happens to be son of the Duke of Suffolk.

Meanwhile, Mal decides to learn more about these Skraylings, and through his roommate Ned is introduced to Suffolk’s Men - one of three groups of players to perform for the Ambassador – along with young tireman Coby Hendricks. Coby teaches Mal ‘tradetalk’ - the simplified English the Skryalings use to communicate, but Coby is harbouring a far greater secret.

The characters are one of Anne Lyle’s real strong points; at times you can almost believe you are reading an account of lives of real people, albeit translated to modern English. From Mal’s roguish goodwill, through Coby’s na├»ve urge to please, to Ned’s somewhat lecherous charm, there is something about all of the characters to spark the reader’s interest, even the ones you’re meant to dislike.

As this is a historical fantasy, the world is as well-realised as one would expect; it is very clear that this is an era Lyle takes a vested interest in, and it comes through in the little details she sneaks into the story, as well as the bigger set pieces, such as basing a large part of the story in the Tower of London.  You can almost smell the jakes and hear the curfew bells ringing as you work your way through the book, and this era is made to be an entirely natural setting for the story.

There is not much more that can be said without spoiling the story. As can be expected in a fantasy novel, not everything is as it seems on the surface, yet there are plot twists here that go even deeper than first thought.

My only complaint about this novel is that it was over too quickly. My first read was in one sitting over about 6 hours. It is addictive, the characters make you care, and the setting is beautiful. What more can you ask for from a novel?

The Alchemist of Souls is available from Angry Robot Books. Its sequel, The Merchant of Dreams is also available, with the final part in the trilogy coming late in 2013.

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