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.
As historical fiction, The Alchemist of Souls is a great read.
As historical fantasy, The Alchemist of Souls is just okay.
On the one hand, the historical components of this book are fantastic. Lyle clearly did her home and she does a fantastic job of capturing the look and feel of Elizabethan England. It’s great to get a novel that’s from the perspective of essentially the upper echelon of the lower classes. Mal Catlyn is technically of higher birth, but his half-French parentage in a very anti-Catholic period has kind of left him adrift in society. The other major players we follow – Mal’s friends and Jacob (Coby) are actors or work in the theater, a profession not exactly respected until the 20th century. We get glimpses of nobility, but are rarely amongst them, and Skrayling ambassador doesn’t look/dress/feel like your typical nobleman either.
The best aspect of the historical fiction part of this book is the handling of Coby him (well, her) self. Very early on we learn that Coby isn’t a boy at all, but a girl. She started cross-dressing after her mother’s death to increase her odds of safe travel, and remain cross-dressed to find employment. For a great deal of the book she remains incredibly fretful of her secret being discovered, and even when it is, she still has to maintain her cover. After all, as she’s keenly aware, at best cross-dressing in this period lands you jail. (Remember kiddies, Joan of Arc was convicted, amongst other things of cross-dressing!). It never feels trivialized in the least (Hello Defy), and in fact her secret does in fact remain that way to two of the four protagonists. It’s a touch I really appreciated.
As far as the fantasy aspects go, I can’t say she didn’t spend some time developing them. We get an idea of the Skrayling’s, their culture, their language and even their religion. The problem is, they just ultimately aren’t that interesting. There isn’t anything terribly new here and the grand scheme that the villains are up to just never felt that threatening? It doesn’t help that the reason that this is alternate history (i.e. Elizabeth did marry and bear children) is only due to a plot point introduced like the final 10% of the book.
With a little bit of tweaking (make the threat to England come from somewhere else in Europe), this could go back to being a straight historical fiction and I ultimately think the story would be stronger for it. Will I read the sequels? I’m not really sure. Do I think it’s worth picking up, especially on e-Reader where the book has been sub-$5 pricing for some time? Definitely. I didn’t touch on this, but aside from the historical aspects, I found the techincal aspects to be quite good, and Lyle has had one of the deftest hands in terms of handling her multiple points-of-view; something that I’m not usually a fan of.
Ultimately, I think I high to file this under “imperfect, but worth a look.” It may grab you more than I did, and even if you feel the same way I do about the fantastical elements, the historic aspects remain fantastic. Also, I fully support the continued support of Angry Robot, who has quickly become a favorite publisher of mine.
Verdict: Buy It if you like historical fiction as a whole, Borrow It if you need the fantasy to pull you in.