The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

★★★½

Night’s Masque: Book I

Larry Rostant’s Renaissance cover art has once again persuaded me to take a punt on a novel: a compelling blend of fantasy and gritty historical fiction, populated by players, spies, noblemen, and swordsmen who are down on their luck. This is London, in the fading days of Elizabeth I’s reign, but not as you know it. The queen tarries at Nonsuch, mourning her late husband Robert Dudley, while the reins of power are in the hands of her elder son Prince Robert. The capital seethes not only with religious strife, but also racial tension, for the discovery of the New World has brought Europe into contact with the skraylings: human-like and yet not human; great craftsmen, traders and warriors. And the imminent arrival of the first skrayling ambassador to the Court of St James may well be the spark that ignites the blaze. Imagine Shakespeare in Love seasoned with grit, intrigue and more than a hint of otherworldly magic.

Mal Catlyn is content to keep a safe distance from the skraylings. He has a soldier’s suspicion of the unfamiliar, but an out-of-work swordsman can’t afford to be too choosy about the work he accepts. In any case, you can’t really say no to a job when you’ve been forcibly brought to the Tower for an interview and Francis Walsingham is behind your appointment. As a country gentleman fallen on hard times, with a French Catholic mother and a mad twin brother in Bedlam, Mal isn’t really in a position to be picky. And so he accepts the extraordinary offer made to him: that he should become bodyguard to the first skrayling ambassador to set foot on European soil, who could be at risk not only from fanatic Englishmen but also from rivals in his own community.

The new job might not be to Mal’s taste, but it’s a step up from sharing a bed in a grim attic with his friend Ned, an impoverished scribe. Ned, whose hopes of getting into Mal’s breeches have been definitively thwarted, finds comfort in the company of players and reprobates at the Bull’s Head tavern. His old flame Gabriel is a rising star in the company of Suffolk’s Men, headed by the ambitious Master Naismith, who hopes for great things in their new theatre, the Mirror. Also in Naismith’s company is the Dutch tireman Coby, officially known as Jacob Hendricks (but really Jacomina Hendricksdochter), who has chosen a life of freedom as a man, rather than the restrictions of living as a woman. The company is galvanised by the prospect of a great competition: the skraylings are known to enjoy theatre and, in honour of the new ambassador’s arrival, a great dramatic contest is planned. Three companies; three plays; only one winner. Suffolk’s Men have confidence that their play, adapted from a skrayling myth, can be the winner; but it looks as though someone, somewhere, is determined to stop them.

Lyle’s plot is deliberately Shakespearean, with twins, madness, women dressed as men and political ambition. That alone would have been great fun, but the balance shifts with the arrival of the eloquent, courteous and curious ambassador Kiiren. For the first two-thirds of the book, it was a solid four-star romp and I loved learning about the skraylings’ culture and seeing how Lyle deftly rewrites history to accommodate them and her counterfactual Tudor world. I did feel that the story lost its way ever so slightly towards the end, when we found out a little more about what Kiiren was actually looking for, and I wasn’t completely convinced by the way things ended. I can’t really go into details because they would count as horrendous spoilers, but there were several rather too convenient coincidences. However, there was enough verve to the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed it and ordered the two sequels immediately upon finishing.

What really appealed to me was the confidence with which Lyle navigates her world. There’s so much more I want to know, about the skraylings in particular, and I just hope that she feeds us a bit more information in the next two books. Her historical research – even when it’s cheerfully tweaked – is impressive. For example, I was delighted to learn from her historical note that Mal, or Maliverny Catlyn actually was a real person (some liberties have been taken, of course). I’d already recognised Baines – who informed on Marlowe after his murder, who appears in A Dead Man in Deptford and The Marlowe Papers. It was fun to spot the real historical characters among the fictional. Marlowe is mentioned and the Bard himself is name-checked once, but once only: this is a novel which firmly eschews the Good Morning Dr Johnson School of Historical Fiction. In short, therefore, while I’m not absolutely sold on Lyle’s conclusion, I did love about 80% of her novel unconditionally, and I feel I simply have to find out what happens.

If you enjoy alternate histories, Tudor fiction or very light touches of otherworldly magic, give this a go. I think you’d enjoy it. I feel rather invested in the main characters now and I’m keen to see where Lyle takes them, especially because I think the second book sees Mal and Coby heading off to Venice. Venice, of all places! How can I resist?

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One thought on “The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

  1. Diann Miller says:

    The featured title here has me so intrigued, must add to my list of titles to read! The cover art reminds me of a story I just read on http://peachill.com, a story-telling platform I recently discovered. Great variety of stories and genres! Cheers, and great job Larry Rostant, you definitely caught my attention.

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