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The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle
Book Name: The Alchemist of Souls
Author: Anne Lyle
Publisher(s): Angry Robot
Formatt: Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Historical Fiction
Release Date: March 27, 2012

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back with them a name out of half forgotten Viking legend – Skayling’s – and following in those explorers wake came red sailed ships, native American goods, and a Skrayling ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I court.

Mal Catlyn, a down on his luck sword for hire, is seconded to the Skrayling’s guard as the Ambassador’s personal bodyguard – at his behest – but assassinations are the least of Mal’s worries. What he learns about the Skrayling’s, their unholy powers, could cost England her new ally; and Mal his soul.

If you like your historical fiction with a twist then The Alchemist of Souls is for you. Anne Lyle has obviously taken a lot of time to learn about the period she is writing in, the muddied streets of Elizabethan London jump from the page, full of colourful characters, sinister plots and rip roaring adventure. You get the feel of the place, the dank lodgings; the filth wherever you walk. Opposed to this is the grandeur of the Royal palaces, the Tower of London. Anne has breathed life into the city making it more than just a backdrop to her story. On top of this place-setting she has layered an alternative history where Queen Elizabeth I married and has children, creating a whole string of possibilities for future books. As if it wasn’t enough just to create another timeline, she has added a fantastical element in the form of the Skrayling’s – creatures from Norse legend – to add to the political melting pot that was Europe in the late 1500s.

The political plots, schemes and infighting that were famously around during that time are still present. Numerous characters seem to be working to their own agenda, whilst proclaiming to be working in the interest of the nation and for the Crown. The mystery at the core of the story though has nothing to do with the plots and machinations of high ranking peers. It’s a story of lost love, murder and possession.

Mal Catlyn serves well as the main character, a down on his luck minor nobleman just trying to get by and live day to day. But he hides a secret; a secret that could see him branded a traitor and hanged. He also carries the burden of having to care for his twin, but rarely having the wherewithal to do it, a twin that has a broken mind and is locked away where he cannot harm himself or others, trapped in a world of his own. Mal is ably assisted by Ned, a young man who flits between working in the theatres and his lover, one of the rising stars of stage. But Ned treads a dangerous line; he is in a gay relationship in a world where such activities are punishable by death. Mal and Ned are joined by Corby; another with a secret, Corby is a girl pretending to be a boy, hoping to make her way in the world before her body betrays her. Like Ned she works in the theatre, and unlike other women of the time she is well equipped to deal with the dangers of living in London at that time, and on one occasion saves Mal’s life. The three of them become linked after Mal is assigned as the personal bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador.

There are a lot of elements in play here, on the surface you have a historical story laced through with fantasy elements. But as you get further into it the story starts to take on some classic espionage elements. Mal is not only roped into being a bodyguard, but he is forced into spying on those he is supposed to be protecting, and at the same time under suspicion himself, because those of a higher social standing, cannot understand why he was requested personally by the ambassador. A question that Mal cannot answer himself as up until that point in his life, he had had little dealing with them either.

The story rattles along at a healthy pace, there is little time to catch your breath as Mal and his friends go from working for the Crown, to fugitives, to heroes. That’s not to say Anne is sparing with her descriptions, this is no cut down action romp where you have the bare details of setting and character look. The action is handled well and the suspense kept bubbling nicely to keep you engaged. If I have any qualms it’s that everyone, no matter their standing in society, seems to have easy access in and out of several important castles – including the Tower of London. I’m unsure what the level of security was in the late 1500s, but I imagine it to have been tighter than this.

For a debut novel this hits all the right notes, the characters are fully formed and believable, as is the setting they inhabit. There is plenty of evidence that even though this could be read as a standalone, there is obvious seeding for further adventures – the second book The Merchant of Dreams is already out. Anne Lyle is an author to watch, based on this story alone she is someone I will happily follow and see where she takes me.



  1. Avatar Brian Turner says:

    Rarely have I read a book where the city in the story is based has come so alive – when her characters walk through the streets of London you really are there.

    There are also lots of references to Elizabethan theatre that demonstrate just how deep her research has been, yet the details never intrude upon the story which is a real strength.

    I agree, this is a very strong debut, and The Merchant of Dreams is another strong book.

  2. Avatar A.E. Marling says:

    I’m fist-pump happy to hear of a fantasy story featuring a gay character. Talk about forbidden love! Punishable by death, no less. Think Romeo and Juliet had star-crossed love? What about Romeo and Jose?

    Thank you for the review, Phil Norris.

  3. […] If you are as excited as we are to learn more about the last book in the Night’s Masque series, or if you’ve not heard of Anne’s books before, you can read up on them at her website here. You can also follow her on Twitter here and read our review of her first book, The Alchemist of Souls, here. […]

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