I’ve been waiting some time for a chance to read Alchemist of Souls, since Anne is a personal friend as well as a member of a writers’ group I belonged to for a while. I originally saw this book in one of its earlier drafts, and it’s been fascinating to read the finished product – not to mention to get a window into the inner world of a writer I already know as a person.
So with the appropriate caveats that I know the author, on to the review. Spoilers abound, although I’ve tried not to give any main plot points away.
Alchemist of Souls is set in an alternate Elizabethan England in which Queen Elizabeth I married and had children, and Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World discovered not native Americans but a race of tattooed, magical creatures known as the Skraylings. At the start of the book a Skrayling ambassador has come to London, and our hero Mal Catlyn is somewhat unceremoniously recruited as his bodyguard.
The first things that stand out about the book are the quality of the research, and Lyle’s down-to-earth style. Elizabethan London is a vivid presence, crawling with people and racket and smells; the book isn’t what I’d call gritty or dark, but the setting makes a certain grubbiness pretty much a necessity and Lyle carries that well. The physical locations are fascinating to explore and always very clearly drawn; the decrepit Tower of London, the muddy streets and the seething chaos of Elizabethan theatres and festivals like Bartholomew Fair. Historical attitudes are often very different to modern ones, and there’s a good balance between the alien and the recognisable in the way the characters think.
There are some lovely nods to Elzabethan theatre in the plot of the book; within the first couple of chapters we discover a mad twin brother and Coby, a character who is secretly a girl masquerading as a boy. Despite the Shakespearean cliche Coby’s secret life is remarkably well drawn – it’s easy to play crossdressing for laughs, but the anxiety of a hidden identity and the constant fear of being found out come across to perfection. Coby is clearly cis female, but transgender readers may still find a lot to identify with; personally, given the ending, I’m going to be very interested to see how the romance between Coby and our hero Mal develops in later books.
Moving on into the plot I found myself captivated in the early parts by the diversity and colour of the background characters. Leland, Mal’s boss at the Tower of London, is intensely funny every time he appears, and the disreputable cohorts of Elizabeth I’s spymaster Walsingham added a suitably dangerous edge. The theatrical theme continues throughout with much of the action set in a half-constructed theatre; thespianism always delights me and there were some wonderful set-piece scenes with the company of actors. The Skraylings are well thought out and avoid the usual fantasy cliches; my criticism of them would be that the black-and-white opposition between patriarchal Elizabethan England and the Skraylings’ overwhelming respect for women feels somewhat facile, at least as it’s presented here. But then I thrive on nuance and complexity when it comes to gender roles – possibly so much so that the casual reader would be confused!
One of the real standout points of this book for me is the depth and subtlety with which the gay characters are drawn. Ned Faulkner, our hero’s sidekick, would be a repellent little weasel through most of the book if it weren’t for the extra dimension that his deep and genuine love for his male partner adds to him. I also have a good deal of respect for Anne for tackling the thorny problem of fitting gay characters into a historical setting; it goes without saying that much of European history is pretty rabidly homophobic, and creating sympathetic characters without stretching the bounds of credibility too far is a challenge she’s risen to well.
On the subject of sexuality, I found it fascinating that when Mal, our handsome hero, is fully described for the first time it’s through Ned’s eyes; the “gay gaze” isn’t something I’m used to seeing in fantasy fiction and it made for a refreshing change. How straight male readers will respond to that I’ll be interested to see, but personally I find it an exciting experiment. This is not an LGBT book per se, the main romantic subplot is a straight one, but there’s a pleasing queerness to much of the story – the uncertain gender of the Skrayling ambassador and a hint or two that the hero may be bisexual, among other things – and I’d heartily recommend this to LGBT fantasy fans.
Moving on to the plot of the book, I found it ticked along reasonably well; I’d call this book a slow burner, rather than a pacey action thriller, but much of the setup is necessary to flesh out our understanding well enough that the eventual denouement makes sense. Skrayling magic appears part way through the book, and to me at least was a bit of a sudden departure. Based on the alchemical technology we’d seen the skraylings using up till then, I’d been assuming that the “magic” we’d been told about was a superstitious misunderstanding on Mal’s part, but there’s another dimension to them which isn’t apparent at first. As the action builds all of the characters are stretched and challenged in different ways; Mal is forced to open his mind, Ned is forced to leave his comfort zone, and Coby is forced to be the man she’s been working so hard to present. The final reckoning has something of an urban fantasy feel about it – there are no happily ever afters here, relationships remain complex and compromised by circumstance, and there’s definitely plenty of space for things to develop in the remaining books of what will be (I’m told!) the Night’s Masque trilogy.
Overall, then, I think this is a solid and very enjoyable debut. I’m invested in the characters and the story and I want to hear more about them, which in many ways is the most important measure of a book. I won’t deny that I’m looking forward to seeing Anne’s style develop over time. There were moments in the book when I wanted to be shown something rather than told about it, especially through dialogue; plus I may be misreading the conventions of historical fantasy as a genre, but I also felt that at times the historical detail took the focus more than it should. But – it was fun. I was gleefully cheering Coby on, creeped out by the ubiquity of Walsingham’s spies, sharing Mal’s growing unease as the full extent of the facts slowly comes out. And really? That’s the thing I’ll remember in six months’ time.