Saturday, May 5, 2012
The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle
Anne Lyle's debut The Alchemist of Souls is the first book in her Night's Masque series. It joins the growing number of fantasies set in Elizabethan England, along with the first book in Marie Brennan's Onyx Court series and Mark Chadbourn's Will Swyfte books.
Anne Lyle's research is impressive, and her alternate Elizabethan England (The Virgin Queen married Robert Dudley and the union produced children. Elizabeth actually read more like Victoria) is interesting and well built. I was impressed that she chose to set some of the book around a troupe of players. It brought back memories of a Geoffrey Trease book I read as a child and it also had a Shakespeare in Love feeling about it.
The plot follows three characters; a down at heel swordsman by the name of Mal Catlyn, who is given the job of both guarding a skrayling (other worldly creatures from Vinland, which is an alternate North America) ambassador, and spying on the creatures for Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. A young Dutch girl, masquerading as a boy with a troupe of players as a tireman; Coby Hendricks. The final main character is a knockabout and romantic scribe of Mal's acquaintance; Ned Faulkner. The three become caught up in a plot to gain control of the throne.
It was quite readable and enjoying, the mystery behind the skraylings and the creatures themselves was very inventive and well written. The main characters were a little less successful for me. I felt Mal was a bit too passive, and Coby a little uneven, I also didn't buy the conceit that she could successfully have hid her gender for as long as she had. Ned, who for me, was the most likeable, got the rough end of the stick most times and turned out to be a bit of a plot device.
Despite those criticisms it is a promising debut and the hook is nicely baited at the end to keep readers well and truly interested and getting the sequel when it appears.