Now this is how you write a novel!
I love fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It seems an era particularly rich in epic, empire-spanning events and internal religious and royal conflict. If an author can make historical figures come alive and explore the emotions and motivations that might have been involved in these intrigues, the resultant novel can be an intense, interesting invocation of history. This era is also a rich source of inspiration for historical fantasy, and sometimes even alternative history. What if Henry VIII hadn’t killed Anne Boleyn? What if he had lived to take a seventh wife? Or what if, as Anne Lyle posits here, Elizabeth I did not remind the virgin queen, but instead married Robert Dudley and bore him princes? And what if, upon expanding into the New World, European explorers encountered more than just the indigenous human inhabitants? They found the Skraylings, non-human beings steeped in mysterious traditions and magic.
The Alchemist of Souls falls into the category I like to call, “What a Great Read.” It’s not a book that is going to keep me up at night pondering its themes and subtext. But it’s far more than just a competent or compelling narrative. Rather, Anne Lyle has achieved something in between the two, and that’s definitely cause for celebration. I enjoyed the few hours I spent with Maliverny Catlyn and Coby Hendricks, and Lyle’s alternative Elizabethan England is a fascinating setting without becoming overbearing or over-the-top.
Mal Catlyn has seen better days. Down his luck, in debt, suddenly he becomes appointed the bodyguard to a Skrayling ambassador. There are deeper reasons for this, which we learn later, but the upshot is that Mal is caught between several masters. He is working for Walsingham, who of course is trying to control everything. He is working for Leland, the Queen’s man in this matter, and theoretically Mal’s direct superior. But mostly he becomes loyal to Kiiren, the young Skrayling ambassador whom he is assigned to protect. Mal overcomes his initial prejudice and distrust of the Skraylings and comes to consider Kiiren a kind of friend—that is, until a close encounter with Skrayling magic and the abduction of his insane brother threatens Mal’s relationship with Kiiren, as well as Mal’s life.
The other half of the book follows Coby, short for Jacob, an adolescent member of an acting troupe. Except she’s a boy (which isn’t a spoiler, because we learn it when we first meet her). As the tireman for Suffolk’s Men, Coby works on the costumes for the troupe. She finds it easier to live as a boy rather than endure the attention that would fall upon her as a parent-less girl. The threat of discovery looms over Coby at every corner, but Lyle never makes it melodramatic. Rather, she plays upon the ambiguous attitudes towards sexuality and sexual orientation among the Elizabethan classes. Coby falls hard for Mal after he teaches her how to fight in return for lessons from her on Skrayling tradetalk. He notices the attraction, but of course he sees it through the lens of Coby’s apparent masculine gender performance and lets Coby down gently. Later in the book, another man who has relations with men assumes it is Coby’s attraction to Mal that makes her so anxious to find and rescue him from the clutches of an adversary.
This kind of play on mistaken identity or misinterpreted relationships and sexuality is nice to see, particularly in a book set in the time of Shakespeare, who was such a master of it. I won’t pretend to any kind of expertise in this area, so rather than saying that Lyle’s portrayal of sexuality and gender lends the book authenticity, I’ll say that it at least demonstrates a keen awareness that ideas about gender in Elizabethan England were very different from ideas about gender now. So many writers of historical fiction nail the events, dates, names, even clothing, but their men act like 20th- or 21st-century men, and their women act like 20th- or 21st-century women. Lyle’s characters have the prejudices and pre-conceptions of 16th-century Europeans, something that becomes all the more obvious when they deal with the Skraylings.
The principal conflict in The Alchemist of Souls concerns one of the many secrets the Skraylings have yet to reveal to humans: they reincarnate. I won’t go into more detail so I don’t have to attach a spoiler warning. Suffice it to say that Mal and his twin brother play an important role in a gambit between Kiiren and another important Skrayling. In the balance lies not only Mal’s life but the alliance between the Skraylings and England against the staunchly-Catholic French and Spain. Lyle includes both personal and very big-picture stakes in the conflict.
Indeed, in general I am impressed not just with the story but with how tightly written this book is. It’s easy to turn historical fiction into sprawling epics, with descriptions and careful flashbacks and long-winded explanations of genealogies and precedents. Lyle manages to establish a lot with very little in the way of exposition. We quickly learn that Mal is the son of a diplomat who married an heiress from the French court. This gives him a half-French, secret Catholic heritage he has to hide, lest it bring him under suspicion. (Lyle drops a few more hints throughout the book that Mal will eventually renew his connection to France in the service of Walsingham’s spy corps, but I assume that will be another book.) Similarly, we learn about Coby’s background and former life in the Netherlands in about a single conversation between her and Mal. No lengthy flashbacks here, and only a few disjointed dream sequences!
I’m not quite as sold on the way Lyle portrays the magical and supernatural in The Alchemist of Souls. Magic doesn’t play an overt role until the last part of the book, and then there’s quite a bit of it, and it can be a little confusing to try to work out what’s going on, especially during the climax. In the end, all becomes clear once the dust settles. But this is an exception to the otherwise skillful use of action and suspense that makes this book so satisfying to read.
This is definitely a refreshing take on Elizabethan England, and one that I will be happy to follow as a series. The addition of the Skraylings into the political and religious fray between England and the Continent can only deepen the amount of carnage and intrigue that will be forthcoming. I can’t wait to see what Mal gets up to next. But far from serving merely to set up any sequels, The Alchemist of Souls is a fine novel that stands alone. It’s entertaining and action-oriented, but with a keen sense of history, neat new supernatural allies and enemies, and worthy characters to cheer (or boo).