The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

I just finished reading Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls.  Taking place in an alternative Elizabethan England which I confess had me at first backtracking and saying ‘what’ as I wondered if I’d not paid enough attention in history lessons.  I admit I was really looking forward to this novel and it didn’t disappoint.

This is a historical fantasy-come-mystery where history as we know it has been rewritten somewhat.  To begin with Elizabeth was married (to Robert Dudley) and has two children although her husband has now died and she is living in seclusion. Of course she’s still the same strong and feisty character even though she plays only a very minor role in this story.  So, that’s a fairly significant change to start with.  On top of that, and probably a bit more significant is that our explorations to the new world have introduced us to a new race of people called the Skraylings, based, I understand, on Nordic mythology.  The Skraylings now live amongst us although they’re not completely integrated or trusted.  The Queen’s ambitions however run to seeing an alliance between the races and as such the Skrayling Ambassador is about to visit London.  Of course this visit will stir up all sorts of emotion, not least of the murdering kind, and so a bodyguard is appointed to the soon to arrive Ambassador.  That gives a little flavour of the plot which as we go along embraces spying, political intrigue, a bit of skullduggery, assassination attempts, theatre, double crossing, etc, (okay I’ll stop there.  I’m sure you get the picture).

I liked the way that Lyle conjures up her setting.  She tempers her detail with sprinklings of fact and embellishes it further with her insights into other things that we love to read about with the Elizabethan era.  The dark and forbidding tower.  The name of Walsingham – the spy master!  The serious rivalry between different theatre troupes.  This is all blended with the feeling of fear that people generally lived with in a world rife with political and religious uncertainty not to mention a whole new race of people who many seem to harbour deep prejudices about.  All this is done in a way that isn’t overboard.  You have enough information to inspire the imagination but not too much that the background overtakes everything else.  For example, the author hasn’t attempted to replicate speech from the era and I for one am glad she didn’t.

In terms of the characters the main character is Mal Catlyn.  Catlyn is a down on his luck swordsman, his family have fallen on hard times and he’s literally out of cash and up to the eyes in debt.  At the start of the novel he’s practically press ganged into the protective body guard role much against his will.  It’s difficult to say why Mal dislikes/fears the Skraylings at this point but this will become clear during the course of the story.  Of course never was the saying ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ more apt and Mal is in no position to decline this offer of work although it could end up in a life threatening situation for him.  The other main characters are Ned, Mal’s longstanding friend and Coby – a young girl who masquerades as a boy in order to work with one of the theatre troupes – quite a little twist in there – females being unable to act on stage so men taking up such roles whilst in their company is a young girl dressed as a boy.  Of course this grants Coby a lot more freedom although does put her in a number of difficult situations.!  I liked Coby and thought she was a good way of bringing any number of awkward and embarrassing moments to bear.  Ned I wasn’t as keen on at first, I thought he was a bit weak and certainly not the best friend to have, although he does redeem himself later on in the story so I’m going to reserve judgement on him until I read the next novel.

In terms of criticisms I think some people may find the plot a little slow although I personally didn’t mind the pacing and thought it was a good set up for future stories.  I suppose my main criticism relates to the characters themselves which I felt needed a bit more somehow.  For example Mal.  I like him.  He’s not really a bad guy.  He gets taken on to a job that he doesn’t really like but he doesn’t do a half hearted job.  He really earns his money and he also overcomes his own prejudices and develops an understanding and liking for the Ambassador.  He can handle himself, he cares about people.  But I just wanted to spend a bit more time with him.  I do understand that the story was told from other POVs but even so I didn’t feel like I shared enough time with him to be tense or happy for him as the plot unfolded.  I think that was probably my main criticism to be honest although I imagine there will be time to get to know the characters much better as the way has now been laid perfectly for further stories.

On the whole a very enjoyable historical fantasy.  I will definitely continue with the series – and I will just throw in here that I love the cover – although I am curious about the name??  Anybody want to chuck me a clue then feel free to do so!

12 Responses to “The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle”

  1. Lisa (@EffingRainbow)

    I’ve been considering reading this on the recommendation of another blogger, so I’m pleased to see you liked it! I think this will get bumped up the list a bit now – I’m curious about the alt-history aspect. 😉

    • lynnsbooks

      I must admit I was really looking forward to this and so was very favourably disposed towards it! It’s good though long and also it is sort of setting up for future novels but I don’t mind that – it happens in plenty of other books after all – I suppose what I’m beating about the bush around is that it’s not a fast paced novel.
      I saw you were reading Three – I’ve got on my kindle wbr – is it good?? Not started yet. I’m reading an excellent book now called The Anvil of the World – nearly half way through and loving it – have you read that one? I’ve read almost half and it’s so good.
      Lynn 😀

      • Lisa (@EffingRainbow)

        Missed this comment, but yes! Loved ‘Three’. And I haven’t read that book, though I’ve heard of the author, vaguely… Might make a note of that one. 😉

      • lynnsbooks

        Yes, I read your review of Three – made me one to accelerate it up the list to be honest. Something definitely appeals to me about that one.
        Lynn 😀

  2. TBM

    Plotting is such a delicate balance–too slow, too fast. Sometimes I don’t mind a little slower but other times I’m like, get on with it!

    • lynnsbooks

      I think I find I have more patience with a book if it is historical for some reason. I tend to enjoy the world building and attention to detail whereas if I’m reading something contemporary I’m a bit more impatient and want to cut to the chase. I liked the setting in this. I’m hoping the characters will be a bit more focused on in the next book. Good story though.
      Lynn 😀

  3. jessicabookworm

    I am liking the idea of fantasy meeting the Elizabethans 😛

    • lynnsbooks

      I really enjoyed it to be honest. It’s not fast paced or anything but I kind of don’t mind that with historical novels. Don’t know if you’ve read any of Sansom’s Shardlake novels – which are very good btw – but they’re sort of similar in pacing.
      Lynn 😀

      • jessicabookworm

        I haven’t read any of Sansom’s Shardlake novels either. Looks like more books for me to consider!

      • lynnsbooks

        They’re very good historical novels.
        Lynn 😀

  4. nrlymrtl

    I read this about 2 years ago and also enjoyed it. I like the idea of Queen Elizabeth having husband, even if she looses him later.
    The Skraylings kept turning up in my dreams, which was really cool and kind of creepy.
    The alchemist of souls I believe is the Ambassador. It’s a little nebulous from my memory, and even in the story was a bit nebulous – but both Mal and the Ambassador lost a loved one. Mal’s brother is ‘insane’ and SPOILER ALERT the Ambassador was able to tell that Mal’s brother wasn’t insane, but had 2 souls inhabiting him – one being a Skrayling. Hence, the blending, or alchemy, of souls.

    • lynnsbooks

      Hah, now that totally makes sense. I’m such a raging dunce! To be honest I was so focused on the word ‘alchemy’ that I forgot about the souls side of thing! (Doh at all!) Thanks for the eye opener.
      Lynn 😀

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