The Alchemist Of Souls – Review
Anne Lyle has written a gem of a first novel. The Alchemist of Souls is the first volume in the Night’s Masque trilogy. It’s set in an Elizabethan London largely recognizable aside from a few key details, such as Queen Elizabeth’s marriage to Robert Dudley, which has given the throne an heir apparent. Much else that you would expect from the time and place are there, theatre, filth, fops, intrigue, and Shakespearean cross-dressing resulting in the comedy (and tragedy) of mistaken identity.
There is one other difference, though. And this one’s key. The New World has retained the name the Norse gave it when they discovered it circa 1000, Vinland. And Vinland is inhabited by a faery-like people called Skraylings. Now, I poked around online and discovered that Skræling was what the Vikings called those indigenous inhabitants they found in Greenland and North America. But Lyle’s Skraylings are not Native Americans. They’re short. They have silver hair. They paint their faces with blue swirling tattoos. And they’re magical.
The novel’s main storyline (and its best) concerns Maliverny Catlyn. Like the Skraylings, Mal does whisper up at us from history. He apparently was part of Walsingham’s network of spies. You can find references to him in the book Elizabeth’s Spymaster, for instance, which Lyle points out in the back of the book. But unlike the older, sterner Puritan of history, Lyle’s Mal is a bit of a dashing young cudgel-wielding rogue who gets press-ganged into Her Majesty’s Service as bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador, who is soon to pay a visit. Here, he gets tangled in all kinds of intrigue, some concerning a theatrical contest (what else?) to be judged by the ambassador, and more concerning his twin brother, Sandy, who languishes in Bedlam. The web grows rather complex, and I found I had to work just a little harder than I wanted to in order to keep the minor characters straight, since they do come to play important roles as the story develops. I could have done with that fabulously useful tool one finds at the beginning of Shakespeare’s plays, and with which Hillary Mantel and George R. R. Martin also provide us—to wit, a cast of characters.
Aside from that, though, I found this to be an immersive and engaging novel. Lyle is at her best when writing about Mal and Kiiren, the skrayling ambassador. Their difficulties with language, how their different cultures and religions are revealed—all of this makes for fascinating and hypnotic reading. Also, I felt as if I walked those smelly Tudor streets as strongly as I’ve felt it reading writers like Mantel or Peter Ackroyd. Here, for instance, is Lyle’s description of Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield.
What hit Coby first was the smell, a thick smoky mix of roast hog, beer, sweaty bodies and of course the mud of Smithfield, permeated by generations’-worth of cow dung and urine. After that came the noise: the clamour of voices, beating of drums, the occasional blare of a trumpet.
I’m growing more interested these days in what alternate history can do with fantasy tropes. I’ve always enjoyed that fantasy best that occurs in the world we already know, rather than in, say, a faux-medieval landscape that needs a map so we know our way around. We all know, pretty much, where London is. Even though this is an alternate London, we still know it enough not to need a map and a long catalogue of made up history behind it to make it seem real. Anne Lyle has given us the Elizabethan London we know from reading history and Shakespeare; but she’s also created a London that has just enough strangeness in its shadows to keep us anticipating wonder. Her bio at the back of the book states she grew up fascinated with history. I do hope that, once the Night’s Masque is complete (Volume Two published in January), she will treat us to another fully realized alternate take on a place and time we thought we knew before we experienced it through her imagination.