It’s the early 17th century. Elizabethan England. The scene is London, a diverse and eclectic metropolis. Maliverny Catlyn is a skilled but down on his luck swordsman and gentleman who is trying to scrape together a living on the hard streets of London, manage his relationship with his lover Ned, and keep his tortured twin brother in some sort of care and comfort in an asylum. As much as 17th century England can provide, anyway.
However, the mysterious, seemingly magic-using skraylings from the new world, already present in the city in a mercantile capacity, have decided to send a formal ambassador to the Queen’s Court in England. And Mal is the perfect person to act as the skrayling ambassador’s bodyguard against threats both foreign and domestic. An offer he literally can’t refuse.
Naturally, as good Queen Elizabeth has mostly retreated from public life following the death of her husband Robert Dudley, dealing with such matters are generally in the hands of her two sons. Francis Walsingham still plots and keeps secrets for the crown, including taking an interest in this new bodyguard for the Ambssador.
In the meantime, a theater company, Suffolk’s Men seeks to finish their new theater in time to put on a play to celebrate the ambassador’s arrival (and win a contest!) and their handyman Coby has secrets of his own. As in the fact that, straight out of Shakespeare, Coby is really a young woman making her fortune and way as best she can.
But even they all working together might not be enough to keep the skraylings safe, or unravel their secrets., or uncover the plot that has far larger stakes than any might guess or believe. And why does the Ambassador seem to know Mal from before they met, or think he does?
Wait, What? What?!
This is definitely not the Elizabethan England you were expecting, now, is it?
The Alchemist of Souls is a debut historical fantasy novel by Anne Lyle. Set in an alternate 16th century London, the novel, clearly the potential first in a series, mostly follows the lives of the two main characters, Mal and Coby, and the machinations that surround them.
16th century Elizabethan London is, to riff off of the Gurps supplement Cabal, a nexus point of history, myth and fantasy. Its a popular setting for authors and their stories and novels, almost irresistibly so. In keeping with that, there are two elements that one or the other often seems to always crop up in them. And a fair number of stories have both of them appear together:
Shakespeare, and Faerie.
Oh, its clear that Shakespeare exists in this already alternate history Elizabethan London. In novels and stories by Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Hoyt, Harry Turtledove, William Saunders, and many others (even a Doctor Who episode!), he is a character, major or minor.
Anne Lyle makes it clear that Shakespeare exists. He just never takes the stage himself. The degrees of separation between the main characters and the Bard is not large, but the author felt no need to include him directly in this story.
Faeries in Elizabethan England, as an overt or just as a theme, is an equally powerful and common theme for Elizabethan England set novels and stories. In addition to Hoyt and Bear, listed above, you can add Mark Chadbourn, Mercedes Lackey, and many others.
As far as the Faerie component, while the Skraylings are exotic and alien (I can’t seem to decide and the author makes it uncertain if they are a strange branch of the genus Homo, or are ultraterrestrials), they are definitely *not* Elves. They do have strange technology which might or might not be magic, again, the author makes it ambiguous as to what it really is.
I thought it was refreshing, and different, to have a novel set in this time period which didn’t mine this already popular duo of motifs.
As far as the writing, I kept comparing it to those other 16th century Elizabethan England novels and stories. While I don’t think the author is at the sublime heights that some of them reach (especially the Elizabeth Bear diptych), her research and authenticity are extremely strong. Its clear this is a first novel, but a decently written one.
This is not a disneyfied Elizabethan England you do find in a unhappily large percentage of works set in this time period. The author evokes the world well. The action and adventure, the beats of the story, hit very well in time, and there was more than one or two scenes that reminded me of techniques and tropes as old as The Bard himself. Elizabethan England, London in particular, for all of its cosmopolitan nature, is a very different place, and the author gets that.
As far as the characters, the author works hard to make the two main characters appealing. With the close third person perspectives, we get into their heads, and understand where they are coming from, their flaws and strengths, expertly done.There is definite growth and change in the characters, major and minor, and the author makes them as familiar as friends and colleagues to the reader.
The plot does get to be a tangled and tormented mess as the conspiracy and what really is going on gets untangled, in a proper Shakespearean fashion. Crossdressing characters. Secret trysts. Swordfighting and adventure. Barbed words and dialogue. And I was strongly reminded of the Minbari of Babylon 5 during one reveal about the nature and society of the Skraylings.
Oh, and if I didn’t make it absolutely clear, the novel is a lot of fun. Swashbuckling, adventure, intrigue, and yes, a tiny hint of romance. I enjoyed the novel immensely. And I suspect that the author is only going to get better as she gets more words under her belt.
The end of the novel sets up future adventures for Mal and Coby in a neat fashion. Dare I guess that a trip to the dangerous French court at Versailles might be in order for the sequel? (Which immediately puts me in mind of the Nebula winning classic The Moon and the Sun by Vonda Mcintyre).
And there are still mysteries galore, and intrigue, and machinations revolving around the Skraylings, those allied to them, and those opposed to them. The epilogue of the story is a “wham” that suggests that the protagonists are going to have bigger problems than they realize.
I’d definitely be up a sequel, which I understand is already in the works.