Science fiction and fantasy


The Alchemist of Souls

by Anne Lyle

It's Elizabethan England, but the Virgin Queen has married and produced heirs. The old world has made contact with skraylings, a civilised yet magical race of creatures from across the sea, and people are split between welcoming them and doing trade, or reviling them as devils.

Maliverny Catlyn's feelings towards the skraylings lean towards unease and distaste. But the swordsman hasn't had a job in months, so when he's offered the position of bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador he reluctantly accepts. It doesn't help that his new position brings him to the attention of the Queen's intelligencer Walsingham, and into the shadowy world of plots and counter-plots that surrounds royal politics. Catholics, the French, and various other factions are all under suspicion. Will they sabotage the skrayling's cordial yet delicate relations with the crown? At a time when being accused of treason would often be a death sentence, a half-French swordsman with a Catholic mother has to be very careful.

Another strand of the story follows Coby Hendricks, who is posing as a boy and working at the theatre for Sussex's men. As a tireman she's responsible for the company's wardrobe, so she watches young men pretending to be women all the time, but she's getting to the age when her own act is getting harder to maintain. Her theatre company is in competition to put on the best play for the benefit of the skrayling ambassador, and because professional pride is at stake there's fierce competition between the theatrical companies.

Then there's Ned, a scribe who's close to Mal and the theatrical world, whose lifestyle is considered scandalous by other Elizabethans. Ned and Mal drift apart after Mal takes on his new role, so it's not clear whether they'll stick up for one another when the chamber pot hits the fan waving lackey. Which it does quite a lot. This isn't a madcap swashbuckling adventure full of sword fights and unlikely escapes at every turn. The characters and situations are much more real than that. Nevertheless there's plenty going on as unknown schemers, spies, and thugs are out to get the main characters and, yes, chamber pot-based violence does occur. There's also a sense of wonder as skrayling magic moves from seeming like a carnival trick to something more peculiar.

But what I really liked was the restraint in between the bouts of action, when we get to see the characters consider their positions and change their minds. Most of all I enjoyed the way they weren't following any well-trodden heroic path of the sort that makes it easy to guess how everything will turn out for them. I particularly liked Ned's ambiguity. We don't know whether he's going to be brave or craven, or how far he will go to lessen his guilt.

The skraylings are supposed to be a mysterious group, and that alien quality is part of their appeal. However I did find it hard to visualise them. Even though we're told they have fangs, mottled skin and tails, it's not quite enough and I couldn't place them on a scale from "hideous trollosaur" to "almost human". Part of this is down to the difference between their gentle, sophisticated behaviour and the horrified reactions people have to them.

The world of The Alchemist of Souls is brilliantly conceived: there's the hotbed of late Elizabethan politics and its vicious kind of justice, and the chiaroscuro contrast between the squalor of places like Bedlam and the shine of the court and theatre. It's full of intrigue and carefully researched period flavour that mixes well with the curious skraylings. Best of all though, I found I really warmed to and believed in Mal, Ned and the small but extremely plucky Coby.

19th March 2012

5 star rating

Review ©

Book Details

Year of release: 2012

Categories: Books

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