Review: Alchemist Of Souls by Anne Lyle

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29th May 2012 09:55 AM

stephenpalmer



In a marvellously envisioned alternate Elizabethan England, Queen Elizabeth mourns the death of her husband Robert Dudley, having retreated into seclusion in her old age. Elsewhere in the world, the explorers of America and Canada (as we know them – Vinland to the Norse) have been followed home by skraylings, the non-human beings of Norse myth. These skraylings set up their trading camp in London, then send an ambassador to the court of the Queen.

The novel follows various characters, but the lead is Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, picked up off the streets to become the skrayling ambassador’s bodyguard. But what Mal learns about the skraylings and their mysterious powers could endanger the country of his birth; and, later in the novel, as he learns more about the skrayling ambassador, his soul. Subtle clues planted in the book about his brother lead the reader to the complex and intriguing climax.

The other main character is Coby, aka Dutch ‘man’ Jacob Hendricks – actually a girl in disguise. Coby is quick and bright, and rather more with-it than some of the men, especially towards the end of the novel, when people actually have to do things rather than sit around talking about them. In many ways she is the lead character, though Mal at first seems to be. Another main character is Ned Faulkner, Mal’s best friend – a gay character, which is rare in fantasy.

So, as conspiracy, counter-conspiracy, and counter-counter conspiracy weave around Mal, Ned and Coby, with the skraylings and various lords in the thick of it too, a tangled plot hoves into view, with much betrayal, revelation, action and some Elizabethan play-acting.

The novel is well written, enjoyable and rarely lets up. Its main advantage is that there is very little fat – stripped to plot and character, it’s a great read, keeping the pages turning. The skraylings add mystery and otherworldliness, and the historical setting is intriguing. There are a couple of minor characters from Central Casting, but the leads are sympathetically drawn and engaging. And the use of historical characters isn’t over-done, nor is the “alternate” aspect of the novel, which, with some authors, is so much of a temptation to explore, at the expense of the novel itself.

If you like your fantasy with a historical flavour, try this. It’s really good.
 
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