The Alchemist of Souls is Anne Lyle’s debut and the first in the Night’s Masque series. It’s an alternative history set in Elizabethan England. When English explorers reached the New World, they not only found Native Americans, but a mythological race of beings called the Skraylings. They’ve become major trading partners of England, but not everyone wants to see those ties tightened. Mal Catlyn is a down-on-his-luck gentleman with a sword, and someone at Court has remembered his name despite his chosen exile after family scandal. Mal is chosen to be the bodyguard of the much anticipated Skrayling ambassador, but protecting him from assassination may take second place to avoiding political traps.
A world on the brink of change
Elizabeth I’s reign of England saw that country move quickly through the Renaissance into the Age of Exploration, and in The Alchemist of Souls that change comes a bit earlier than it did in reality. I would estimate that this book is set in the 1590s: Elizabeth is elderly, leaving much of her country’s day to day ruling to her Privy Council, and Shakespeare is the lead playwright after the recent death of Christopher Marlowe. However, several portions of London have been taken over by Skrayling merchants offering fantastic wears from the New World. Skraylings have been around long enough not to elicit a great deal of comment from the average Englishman, if they haven’t received total acceptance. Added in to this shifting era are the religious tensions that were running rampant through Europe at the time. Elizabeth I is the Supreme Head of the Church of England, but neighboring France and most importantly Spain remain Catholic followers of Rome. To be Catholic, as Mal Catlyn is, is to live in constant fear of being called a traitor to your country. On the other side, Protestant reformers like the Puritans are slowly gaining ground in pushing for further reforms to Church of England.
One of the things I loved about this book is the level of detail that Lyle has given to her version of London. While things are just slightly off, she’s left a lot of historical detail in, which lends her world a lot of weight. There are the appropriate people in the appropriate places doing the appropriate things, from crowds of everyday people to the guards at the Tower of London, and she doesn’t take a lot of shortcuts with where her characters need to go and who they need to talk to.
Not all fun and games
First and foremost, this is a very ambitious debut, and in some ways I think that got the better of Lyle. There’s a lot of worldbuilding, a trio of viewpoint characters, and a complex plot driven by several characters with varying agendas. For me, this works best when most of the plot will be carried through a series of books, thus giving time for everything to fully develop. Instead, Lyle ties up a lot of the plot threads rather quickly at the end of the book. I was really enjoying the tension she had built, but the last few chapters of the book really felt like a needlessly hasty conclusion. While I still enjoyed the book, that ending took this from being a really exceptional debut to being a debut where the author bit off more than she could chew.
Why should you read this book?
This is a fun romp through Tudor England, filled with mythical creatures, swordsmen, and theatre-types. The characters are well-rounded and compelling, and there is a very real urgency to the plot. Overall, it’s a good read for all of its faults. Being a debut, I’m hopeful that it will be improved upon with the second book, Merchant of Dreams, out now from Angry Robot.