The Alchemist of Souls

The Alchemist of Souls - Anne LyleI’ve been following Anne Lyle on Twitter for some time, and she turned up at BristolCon last year, which was very good of her considering she’s not at all local these days. Therefore, when Angry Robot offered me an e-ARC of her debut novel, I jumped at the chance. I’m always interested to see who Marco is signing, and here was a new woman writer I had already taken a liking to. Thankfully I can report that the book, The Alchemist of Souls, is a lot of fun. That’s the summary, here’s the more considered version.

Lyle’s setting is an alternate history fantasy version of Elizabethan England. The two primary deviations from actual history are as follows. Firstly Elizabeth married Robert Dudley and produced two sons: Robert and Arthur. Secondly, when the English arrived in the New World, they found it inhabited by a non-human race called Skraylings. Being somewhat more flexible in their attitudes to seemingly un-Godly creatures than the Catholics, the English have concluded an uneasy alliance with these strange beings, but many of the Queen’s subjects are less enthusiastic than Her Majesty’s government about the foreigners.

I’ve described the book as a fantasy, and it does have magic in it. A lot of what the Skraylings do is actually advanced science that appears indistinguishable from magic to the English. Part of the fun of the book is working out what that is. But some of what they do is far beyond even the imaginings of modern science, so “fantasy” seems the appropriate tag for the book.

The story has two main characters. The first is a fairly straightforward action hero. Maliverny Catlyn is a minor noblemen and sword-for-hire fallen on hard times. For reasons that are not at all clear, especially to him, he is suddenly asked to take on the job of bodyguard to the new Skrayling ambassador. This involves him in all sorts of plotting and skullduggery, and effectively puts him in the employ of the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walshingham. Thus far, so relatively normal.

The other central character is quite different. Jacomina Hendricks is a refugee from the war-torn Netherlands. For safety’s sake she disguised herself as a boy, Coby, and eventually she ended up working for a small theatre company in London. Now trapped in her disguise, and risking prosecution if her masquerade is discovered, she has found refuge in the closest thing that Elizabethan England has to a queer community.

As I’m sure all of you will know, it was illegal for women to appear on the stage in Shakespeare’s day. All of the female roles, from Macbeth’s witches to Juliet, were played by boys. Some of them, inevitably, will have delighted in the opportunity to play with gender. Gabriel Parrish, the gayest of the boy actors in Master Naismith’s troupe, happens to be the lover of Mal Catlyn’s friend and drinking buddy, Ned Faulkner.

The playing with gender doesn’t end there. By no means all aspects of Skrayling culture are revealed in what is the first book in a series, but we do discover that gender plays a very different role in society for them. Eventually Mal discovers things about his new friends that it would be better not to tell his fellow humans.

Although there is a lot of this gender play in the book, I don’t think it actually passes the Bechdel Test. Other than the two things noted above, Lyle has stuck fairly closely to the prevailing view of her historical period and kept women mostly in the background. There are many scenes in which Coby talks to women, but in all those cases those women regard Coby as a teenage boy, not as a girl. Most of the other women in the book have walk-on parts as wives, serving girls, or whores. Even Gloriana, who does have power to exercise, is aged and distant in the book. While there are gay characters, this isn’t an overtly erotic book like the Gemma Files novel, A Book of Tongues, that I reviewed recently.

If one was going to gender the book, which I don’t like doing but it is relevant from a marketing point of view, I’d say it would appeal more to men than women. The cover shows Mal looking rugged and handsome, and Lyle mentioned on Twitter that at her recent signing in Manchester the customers were exclusively male.

The other famous person who is mostly absent from the book is Will Shakespeare. I think this is probably a good move. There are many books about the period in which Shakespeare is a major character. He doesn’t have to turn up in all of them. Also, of course, people will keep buying the sequels in the hope that he eventually makes an appearance.

The thing I like most about the book is that none of the central characters are supernaturally competent. Mal is a good swordsman, but he’s a dreadful spy. He’s too open and honest. Walsingham and his right-hand man, Baines, know what they are doing, but Mal certainly does not. Coby, of course, is young and frightened, though she’s a lot braver and smarter than she thinks. Ned and Gabe are nice enough chaps, but totally out of their depth when it comes to national politics, and rather distracted by their mutual passion. Somehow, of course, they manage to muddle through. That’s not a spoiler in a book of this sort, but there’s enough downside along the way to make it seem real.

Of course I have to put things in perspective. This is a first novel. Lyle is not, as yet, in the same league as Cat Valente. She’s not even a discovery like Lauren Beukes. She has, however, produced an interesting and entertaining book and is likely to garner a lot of loyal fans as a result. I’m hard to please, but equally I understand that not everyone will hit great heights from the beginning, and some will have successful careers without ever doing so. Writing is a tough business, but Anne Lyle has made a very promising start.

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2 thoughts on “The Alchemist of Souls

  1. Enjoyed this well-balanced review, Cheryl, which gives me the impression I’d like this one despite any possible flaws. I’m adding it to my list. Thanks!

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