Cover art by Larry Rostant
THE ALCHEMIST OF SOULS
NIGHT'S MASQUE VOL. I
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Published: 27 March 2012
On the cover:
When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?
Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal his soul.
For Historical Fantasy or Alternate History, two of the genres this book belongs to, the pace of this book fells pretty slow. But when you look at this as Historical Fiction, something the story also is, the sedate pace becomes much more understandable. Expectations can influence how you look at the tempo a story is told, and I went into this expecting more of a Historical Fantasy/Alternate History structure, basically something a bit faster paced. It took some time before I got used to this having a structure more common in Historical Fiction, but once I realised and accepted that, I stopped waiting for the pace to pick up and instead got much more enjoyment out of what this really is.
What this is, is a very detailed and interesting journey into an alternate version of the Elizabethan Era. Lyle paints a really vivid picture of the London of Elizabeth I. It's very easy to get pulled into the setting and immersed in the world this story is set in. There's lots of details that help with this immersion, but Lyle writes in such a way that the setting doesn't intrude on the story. The details that add flavour are in the background and don't intrude on what is going on.
And there really is a lot going on. I mentioned the sedate pace earlier, but that doesn't mean boring in this case. The story may move along at a leisurely pace, but it is not uneventful. Much of this is due to a very excellent cast of characters.
Lyle's troupe of players is a very interesting group of individuals. The main character, Mal, is absolutely someone that has enough in his background to drive a narrative all by himself. There's lots of secrecy around him in the (story's) present day but also some things from his past that contribute a lot to making him a well rounded and interesting character. But Mal isn't alone in this story, there are quite a lot of other players around. Most of them have stories that rival Mal's in terms of how interesting they are.
What really lifts this story's ensemble for me is the way they interact, and play against each other. Every one of them brings something with them when they enter the stage, and they all feel as an organic part of the whole. Even the aliens have a depth to them that make them much more interesting than they often are in Historical Fantasy.
Yes, I said aliens. The main element that pulls this away from being pure Historical Fiction is the non-human race that inhabits this world. I found it especially interesting how Lyle has managed to integrate them into the story in the way she has. Often creatures such as these seem tacked on, blatantly there to be played against for the protagonists. In this case they are not, without them the story of some of the characters would be very different. (And of course this world would be quite something else too.) This is definitely one of the best novels out there when it comes to the natural integration of a non-human group/race into the narrative. They actually feel part of the history of this Elizabethan England.
I have mentioned how this story is not a fast paced one, and how it takes its time. That by no means should be taken as there being no suspense, or action, present in the course of the novel. There's plenty of suspense here. Lyle is very good at holding back enough information from the reader to make this a book you are likely to read in a fairly short time, while nicely avoiding holding back so much that it gets annoying for the reader.
When it comes to the end of the novel, that is certainly an action-filled and fast paced affair. After the relatively sedate pace previously in the novel it can almost be too much when things start moving this quickly. It can be jarring when there's such a great difference in pace from what the reader is used to. But Lyle can't really be faulted for this change of pace, it feels natural. It's the way things happened in the story, and I can't really see how they could have been different.
As someone who has both a greater than normal interest in history, and is a fan of SFF, this was a perfect novel for me. This novel bridges the gap between the historical and the fantastic extremely well, and I think this story is a great meeting place for fans of Historical Fiction and Historical Fantasy. I have absolutely no doubts about highly recommending it to fans of both genres, and I think Alternate History fans are close to obligated to give it a try.
I'll end with saying I'm very thankful that I have the second volume in this series sitting on my TBR pile as I write this.
LINKS: Anne Lyle Angry Robot Books