Tuesday, June 12, 2012

100 Books #51 - Anne Lyle's ALCHEMIST OF SOULS

Some books are just made for readers like me, ticking off so many boxes on one's personal checklist that one sits there screaming "hey you book, why aren't you already published and in my hot little hands!" when one hears about them.

Alchemist of Souls is one of those, for me. Tudor/Elizabethan England? Check. Alternate history*? Check. Alien species coexisting with humans? Check. Theatrical politics? Check. Shakespearean cross-dressers, onstage and off? Check.

The world of the novel is one in which Elizabeth I not only married but had children; England's Crown Prince is her son Arthur (by, of course, Robert Dudley. Aww!). That's all just background, though, because this book isn't about Elizabeth or her children except in a distant way; our heroes and heroines are more or less ordinary Londoners dealing with the consequences of an extraordinary event: for the first time ever, a tribe of Skraylings (the aforementioned alien species, the conceit of them being that the New World contained not only the people we know as First Nations/Native Americans, but also a magical, sort-of-elfin race who became trading partners and allies of Britain) are sending a formal ambassador to Elizabeth's court. So of course, intrigue on every level follows, because France and Spain are still Britain's enemies and seek to break up that alliance, by whatever means they might. By which I mean spies, assassins, saboteurs, the usual rabble of mischief-makers.

Enter Maliverny Catlyn (loosely based on an actual historical figure), mysterious swordsman with an intriguing past of which we're only given hints, who is singled out by the powers that be to serve as this ambassador's bodyguard. He has theatrical connections through a sometime love affair with a copyist and forger and thereby winds up coming into the orbit of our other protagonist, Coby, sort of a young majordomo for a theater company who happens to be fluent in TradeTalk, the Skrayling/English pidgeon Mal will have to learn in order to do his new job. Coby, of course, being a "real life" Shakespearean girl in disguise**, half Viola, half Rosalind, falls in love with Mal, though she would have wound up sucked into these intrigues anyway, since her theater company is one of many competing in a special theater contest which the ambassador shall judge, Skraylings being wild about the theater.

Got all that? Good, because there's even more. I have proclaimed on this blog and elsewhere that I would love to read a version of A Song of Ice and Fire that's all about the little people instead of the unpleasant, immoral bigshots jockeying for power. I seem to have gotten my wish. There is a dizzying array of plots and counter-plots, both in the meta, literary sense and in the sense of espionage and political struggle. Coby's is not the only secret identity. The Skraylings have lots of secrets, and not just that of how they make light out of puddles of mystery liquid. There is, of course, magic, and while a major plot point does hinge on this magic, it's otherwise pretty unobtrusive, a mere and minor fact of the world, because Anne Lyle is interested in people, not fantasy tropes. To which I say hooray!

A sequel, set in the Venice of this alternate world, is planned for later this year, and shall land on my ebook reader as a matter of course due to my Angry Robot ebooks subscription, which I shall be renewing immediately this month. I think of all my purchases over the last twelve months, that subscription has given me the most return on investment in terms of sheer pleasure. I am now never without something to read; indeed, I have an overabundance yet, including many books that came out before Alchemist of Souls but didn't promise to capture my imagination and anticipation quite the way this book did. And yes, that promise I count quite fulfilled. Whot larks!

I'm still puzzled at the title, though. No alchemists were harmed in the making of this book. No alchemists appeared at all. The title is pretty much just a rather deep metaphor for plot points I shan't reveal here. Shh!

*Very, very alternate. This Elizabethan England is way more accepting of, e.g., homosexuality, than the real period was, for instance, to say nothing of a whole 'nother sentient race. There are mentions of sectarian Catholic/Protestant tensions but they're just that -- mentions. Much of this can be forgiven (if forgiveness is needed) because of the subculture in which so much of the story takes place; theater/arts circles are always a bit more progressive than the rest of society. Still, I sometimes found this a little hard to swallow.

**This is just one of many Shakespearean motifs, overt and subtle, appearing in the novel. I think Lyle is probably a good old Shakespeare nerd. Funny the Bard himself never appears. That's rather a huge absence, especially since it's not explained. Perhaps in the sequel?


  1. The way I understand it, Anne didn't want to complicate the book by putting Shakespeare too heavily in the book. A little Shakespeare goes a long way, he can take over a book like a weed...

    I highly enjoyed this one too, and am looking forward to the sequel.

  2. It's actually kind of refreshing, reading an Elizabethan story without him in it. I just wanted some idea of why he wasn't. Never born? Became a shoemaker instead of a dramatist? Ran away to France? XD

    1. Oh no, if you read carefully, he clearly exists and in his historical role. This story simply doesn't involve him.


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