The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle
Night’s Masque, volume 1
Published by Angry Robot Books, March 2012
ISBN: 978 0 85766 213 2
Review by Mark Yon
This is a Fantasy novel that pays close watching: though it looks and feels like a traditional Historical Fantasy, there’s more going on than first appears.
In Elizabethan England Maliverny (Mal) Catlyn is a petty thief and swordsman, always on the lookout for the way to pay his next bill or at least keep his debt collectors off his back.
So when he is offered (some would say forced to take) a job to become an ambassador’s bodyguard, he accepts it. It is clearly dangerous. Within the first day there is an assassination attempt on the ambassador, and clearly some want the ambassador dead. But why?
From the start this story feels great and has a tone and presence that feels both natural and of its time, Tudor England. It reminded me very much of Mark Chadbourn’s Will Swyfte novels, which I‘ve read and reviewed before (and perhaps partly explains why Mark has a glowing comment on the front of this book.) Like Mark’s books, the dialogue is appropriately nuanced, the places reeking with the grubby effluvium and gorgeous splendour of Elizabethan life as you would expect.
But Anne’s tale has a new take on the world of the Tudors. Here the Ambassador and his fellow group of voyagers, having travelled from the New World, appear un-human – alien-like in a number of ways. Known as skraylings, their ways are clearly not the ways of England, and as we read on it the reader may find it may be more than that. They are treated with suspicion and distrust by the English though they appear to be respectful, polite and observant of English ways of life, for reasons not clear at first.
The book is also slyly about gender and sexuality. Much is about hidden identities. In a subplot, Coby is a girl masquerading as a boy named Hendricks in a troupe preparing for the presentation of a major play held in a competition in honour of the ambassador’s visit. Coby has to not only keep her identity a secret, for to be discovered invites death. She meets Mal in order to train in fighting so that she can fend off the attentions of other males and females in the company, though she harbours a secret love for him. Mal himself has secrets: he once was a member of the Hunters, a secret clan who kill skraylings as part of an initiation ceremony. He has relationships with women but more secretly with his best friend, Ned. Ned himself is forced to betray Mal to people looking for him, which leads to others knowing about Mal’s twin brother, who is insane and secretly kept locked away in a hospital.
All of this is revealed as we count down to the play, which ends in tragedy and with major revelations all around.
To engage in the telling of such a complicated tale is not usually the actions of a debut author. The fact that Anne does so and makes it work shows the reader that this is an assured debut that repays careful following. Its style is confident and I found it to be surprisingly good for a debut author.
Though it may not be what the casual reader expects, it is a great read whose revelations along the way offer much. Recommended.
Mark Yon, March 2012.