Science fiction and fantasy
The Alchemist of Souls
by Anne Lyle
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
If you like this, try:Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
A young woman is looking forward to graduation in a rapidly modernising city when she is forced to marry a Cold Mage and her life is completely changed. Book one of the Spiritwalker series.
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
Matthew and Diana time travel to Elizabethan England to track down a manuscript witches and vampires are fighting over. The second in the All Souls trilogy.
1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove
Why are the superheroes and villains of the Marvel universe turning up in Elizabethan times? A graphic novel.
Review © Ros Jackson
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