The Alchemist of Souls is the debut novel of Anne Lyle, and is marketed as a historical swashbuckling fantasy. It's set in London, but for once, not Victorian London, and we are promised intrigue, rapiers, magic and romance. I hope there will be some rapier wit as well. It feels like a life time ago when I started blogging, and Anne Lyle is actually one of the first writers I met through Twitter. She had just signed up with Angry Robot Books, and I remember thinking it would be a long wait for her first book, but it’s here now. Thank you Angry Robot for providing me with a review copy of The Alchemist of Souls.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth there was no need for political correctness and gender neutral job titles. Which is why our heroine, Coby, has little choice but to disguise herself as a man to get the job as the tiring man for the Suffolk’s Men theatre company. Coby, or Jacob Hendricks, is only seventeen years old and has no problems passing for a young man.
She exchanged the foetid garment for a clean one she had left amongst her tailoring supplies, pressing her breasts downwards as she laced it so they were flattened to boyish proportions rather than plumped up like a whore’s.
When explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean, not only did they find a new world, but they also met a new race, the skraylings, who lived in peace with the native humans of the new world. Skraylings are present in London, they are very focused on trade, and even possess near magical abilities, or at least that’s what it seems like to us.
However, their language is difficult to learn so a pidgin has developed for use by traders. Coby, who was taught by her master, is now skilled in this language and often accompanies him when he meets his skrayling trade partners. This proves to be useful when she is approached by one of her master’s men to spy upon the bodyguard of the new skrayling ambassador.
England is beset by enemies on all sides, so the monarch fears for the safety of the ambassador. The Spanish and French are the prime suspects of plotting to upset the alliance between England and skraylings. Mal, the son of a disgraced diplomat, is ordered to shoulder the burden of responsibility of guarding the Skrayling ambassador. Mal is uncomfortable about it. His older brother is a member of an organisation who thinks the skraylings are demons, and they oppose them violently. When Mal finds out it was the ambassador himself who personally asked for him he does not know what to think. Either way, the money is good, and he cannot really turn it down. If only someone could teach him the trade language so he could talk to the ambassador...
One of the first things the ambassador will do, once installed in London, is to judge a competition between three of London's best theatre companies. Much is at stake, and soon Coby and Mal are up to their necks in plots to sabotage theatres and kingdoms.
The Alchemist of Souls is a book I will remember for its great characters. Anne Lyle manages to not only instil a lot of life in one character, but three. Coby, with her fear of being found out, and how her feelings for Mal changes from dislike to unabashed puppy love. It's so easy to sympathise with Coby, she has a lot to lose, but is willing to take risks to keep what she has.
Mal is more of a classic rogue of a hero with his charm and good looks. I thought he wold spend a lot more time jumping from rooftop to rooftop while fending off killer ninjas with his rapier, but Anne Lyle choose a more realistic path. None of them is a chosen one, or possesses any extraordinary skills, they are normal people. Mal has plenty of demons in his closet, some more unexpected than others. He is however a good man, but has some tough decisions to make.
The third character, Ned, who is a good friend of Mal, although Ned wished it could be more than just friendship. I really liked Ned, and his irresponsible flirting and carefree attitude. The need to grow up comes a lot sooner than desired for Ned.
When it comes to world building Anne Lyle does a good job as well. London really comes alive around the characters, pulling you straight into the story, and I never really wanted to put it down. The Skraylings brings the fantasy into a otherwise historical setting. A mysterious race, and this book raises more questions than it answers. I feel Anne Lyle only reveals the tip of the ice berg in The Alchemist of Souls, and hopefully, there will be more to come.
The plot slowly gathers momentum while we get acquainted with the characters, making it a very smooth read. Anne Lyle never resorts to any cheap tricks to move the story forward, letting the characters drive the plot. It's far from a simple plot, and she kept me guessing to the very end.
As a self confessed action nut, I'm always pleased when a writer proves to me a book can be so much more than just explosions and gun fights. The characters carry the story simply by being themselves. Don't worry though, Mal's rapier is not for decoration, and it will see use. It's beautifully written story of intrigue, hatred, mystery and love. I'm happy I read The Alchemist of Souls, and I will make sure I read the next part in the Night's Masque series.
The Alchemist of Souls weighs in at 480 pages, and is published by Angry Robot Books. It is scheduled for release on the 5th of April 2012.