The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle – Advanced Dual Review [Bane of Kings/Shadowhawk]
Bane of Kings and Shadowhawk both write a dual review of The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle, a historical fantasy novel published by Angry Robot books that is the author’s first novel.
“A fantastic, original piece of historical fantasy that makes Lyle a début author to watch out for in 2012.” ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields.
“This is the year of debuts and Alchemist of Souls takes you along for the wildest ride yet as you explore Elizabethan England through the eyes of a reluctant hero.” ~ Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields.
Bane of Kings’ Thoughts on The Alchemist of Souls:
I haven’t read that much Historical Fiction, be it historical fantasy, as Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan was, and Dan Abnett’s Triumff (also published by Angry Robot) – or just standard historical action, like the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, or the Eagle novels by Simon Scarrow, so I thought I’d allow myself to pick up Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls, the first novel in the Night’s Masque Trilogy, which comes in at just under five hundred pages, and is published by Angry Robot – who are one of my favourite publishers of science fiction and fantasy.
Set during Elizabethan England, The Alchemist of Souls takes the reader on a tour-de-force that asks the question, what if whilst exploring the new world, the Tudors found a race known as Skraylings, a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend. Following the discovery, ships with red sails bring not only Native American goods to London, but also – a Skrayling ambassador. However, what do these beings want with London, and is all as it seems?
Enter the very strong lead character, Mal Catlyn. Well-rounded, well-developed, he is easy to like and easy to root for in a novel and it is him you see on the novel’s cover. He’s a swordsman, and the novel kicks off with him being taken to the Tower of London to be appointed as the bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador. However, he soon has more on his plate than assassination attempts to worry about, for what he learns about the Skraylings could put him, his soul, and England into a whole world of trouble…
I’m going to start by saying that this was a fantastic novel. I can say that now, before I tell you the plot. The characters, the setting, the action, everything. I know The Alchemist of Souls is not even released yet, but I am already awaiting the sequel. That’s how much I liked it, and coming from someone who doesn’t usually read historical fantasy, I think I’m going to have to try more of the genre if similar novels are as good as The Alchemist of Souls. Indeed, as mentioned in the quote, Anne Lyle has fast become a good, strong début author who is defiantly one to watch out for in 2012, historical fantasy fan or not.
Mal Catlyn may be the show-stealer, but he’s far from the only character in The Alchemist of Souls, for there are several, each well developed and imaginative. Sure, you’ve got the girl disguising herself as a boy cliché involved (the girl in question, Coby), but the only time that gets on my nerves is when it’s not pulled off as well it should be. However, here, in Elizabethan England, in The Alchemist of Souls, Lyle does it superbly.
Don’t be put off by the fact that The Alchemist of Souls has five-hundred odd pages in and the fact that this is Lyle’s first novel, because by the end of it, you’ll find yourself wondering how can this possibly be the author’s début? It’s a pretty exceptional novel, that’s for sure.
The novel itself is pretty accurate history-wise, as far as I can tell, there are no historical errors, apart from a minor one about a character’s homosexuality being accepted so easily, given the timeframe that we’re in; after all, Elizabethan England was a pretty homophobic society. However, that’s only one minor error that didn’t detract from my reading experience of the book.
The pacing in The Alchemist of Souls is pretty quick, and despite the fact that the novel is roughly 500 pages, you’ll get through it quite quickly. In my opinion, the pace is strong, consistent, and there isn’t any overloading on info-dumping throughout the novel, and neither is there any typos or grammar/punctuation errors in my ARC.
I enjoyed The Alchemist of Souls so much that I will no doubt read the sequel, The Merchant of Dreams, as soon as it is released (or even before, if I can get an ARC). A real shame that I have to wait until spring next year, though.
Bane of Kings’ Verdict: 4.5/5
More Night’s Masque: The Alchemist of Souls (April 2012), The Merchant of Dreams (Spring 2013), The Prince of Lies (Release Date)
Shadowhawk’s thoughts on The Alchemist of Souls:
My interest in Alchemist of Souls was first sparked when I came across a comment describing the novel as a ‘terrific mashup of George R. R. Martin meets Shakespeare’. I may have paraphrased that comment somewhat but coming from Anne Lyle’s editor, that is quite high-praise indeed. Now, I’ve dabbled with both Martin and Shakespeare in my reading and I’ve liked what I’ve read so my curiosity was peeked on reading that comment. So I immediately went to the Angry Robot Army site to see if my eARC for the novel was up yet.
It most definitely was and I promptly downloaded it and then transferred it to my eReader.
Alchemist of Souls is definitely one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. Or just one of the best novels ever. For someone rather inexperienced in the historical timeline that the novel is set in and very much inexperienced with the culture of England as well, Anne Lyle has done a great job of bringing that era to life for me. References to the state of England at the time, some of the popular figures of the era, the politics, etc are all weaved in throughout the novel to make for an experience that is very vivid for the reader.
One of the things I look for in any novel or short story or novella or audio drama or what have you is how the characters are presented. Sometimes this is a very conscious process and sometimes not so it makes for quite the varied reading experience. Alchemist of Souls is a novel where I was quite consciously judging the characters every step of the way. Were they cliches? Did the author try something interesting with them or were they just run-of-the-mill? How did the characters react to the events around them. Did they let opportunities pass them by or did they take charge like I expected them to?
Happily enough, Anne’s characterisation answered all these questions for me in good ways. Maliverny Catlyn, our male protagonist, and Coby, our female protagonist, are characters that I grew to love and who I bonded with over the course of the story. They are both pseudo-cliches that the author takes the time to present with differently than in the wider body of speculative fiction. At least in my experience. Mal isn’t just another down-on-his-luck swordsman and Coby isn’t just another girl playing at being a boy and dressing so. They are both characters who ably think on their feet and while things don’t always work out the way they expect, both of them are still able to adapt to changing circumstances. Mal especially is a really charming rogue who knows how to make good of an awkward situation.
One of the best things about Anne’s writing is that it comes across as very natural and I found Alchemist of Souls really easy to get into right from the start. Her narrative doesn’t take the oft-trodden road of making sure that the characters’ histories and tics and mannerisms are solidly established before they are thrown into alien, atypical situations. That is something I enjoyed very much and it made the reading experience more fulfilling for me because it was so different to what I usually come across in my reading. Just like with some of the other authors whose work I have read recently, like Matt Forbeck, the world is explored in a natural manner: things are revealed eventually and there are no info-dumps at any point.
A surprising fact about Alchemist of Souls is that Anne doesn’t bother skirting the issue of sexuality where her characters are concerned. Some of them are openly attracted to members of the same sex and have relationships to match their opinions. This is not something that you generally find in speculative fiction. In fact, the last time I remember coming across something like this is in God-Emperor of Dune, one of Frank Herbert’s seminal novels and part of his Dune series. And I read that novel a good seven or eight years ago. My limited understanding of English cultural history informs me that apart from everything else, this is one of the things that Anne has captured quite brilliantly. And it is not that her characters are gratuitously homosexual, not at all. They are so because that is the world around them and because their sexuality is one of the ways in which the mystery and action in the novel moves forward. The characters are constantly challenged with regards to their views and while they are aware that what they are involved in religiously heretical, they are still defiant about it and will go to almost any length to defend their views. More food for thought throughout the novel. If this aspect of the story had been missing, then Alchemist of Souls would be a very, very dull novel indeed.
If I had any criticism of the way homosexuality is presented in the novel, it would be that for my tastes at least, the concerned characters are too open about it. Perhaps they are so because they are quite close to the issue, in more ways than one, but I believe some more opposing scenes where the notion itself is strongly opposed could have made for a more thorough experience. There just wasn’t enough resistance to the idea of homosexuality or to the practice of it and the characters sometimes could be quite blase about it, which I thought was quite surprising.
The pacing of the novel is one of its defining features as the narrative moves along at a very brisk pace and while sometimes you have to work to keep up with the story, such moments are few and far in between. Overall, I quite enjoyed the near break-neck pace of Alchemist of Souls because I became so invested with the characters, both minor and major, and almost all of them had certain traits that I was able to connect with. For example, with Coby I can relate to her feelings of trying to make it in a world that is not meant for her and is denied to her but one in which she gives her all to succeed in. The Elizabethan England of Alchemist of Souls isn’t that different an era as our present and for me, this was reinforced throughout the novel. The characters have their own foibles and weaknesses and the variety we are treated to is, well, quite the treat.
Anne’s dialogue is also just as natural as the rest of her writing. I confess I cannot tell if the characters are speaking their dialogues as people actually talked in those times but I can see where the author does make that effort. Which ties into just how real the setting of the novel is and how believable it is. We have grand plays being performed, we have the reality of the religious differences between England-France-Spain, the political games of the nobles and so on. And it is all very down-to-earth because neither Mal nor Coby are high-ranking members of the English society. Anne’s narrative constantly strengthens the simple fact that these are both simple, average people who are thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Well, not quite as average as you’d imagine considering they are both the protagonists, but still, their origins are quite humble all things considered and they keep company with people who share similar lives.
Another thing that leaps off the digital pages of Alchemist of Souls is that Anne Lyle was quite passionate in her writing of the novel. Her enthusiasm is extremely apparent throughout and when you can see that in a novel and you can feel it and share in it, then you know that you are reading one of the best debut novels of 2012. After all, what’s not to love about the novel?
Alchemist of Souls is a fantastic novel that explores the England of Shakespeare’s time through the eyes of a down-on-his-luck swordsman, a theater tireman (costumer) who is secretly a girl, a Skrayling ambassador and many others who really bring that part of history to life. The drama of overly ceremonial official events, the developing romance between the various characters, magic, reincarnation, intense sword-fights, this novel has it all.
At roughly 140,000 words, Alchemist of Souls is quite the long novel and will take sometime for readers to get through it, but I would say that just stick with it to the end. The aftermath of the climax is rewarding in a way that few novels are and a lot of plot threads are neatly taken to their logical conclusion and you can’t help but be cheering, truly cheering, for the good guys. The ending also reminds me of one of my favourite fantasy novels ever, Nathan Long’s Blackhearts novels and that ending alone is damn good for me to be very excited about the sequel, which I believe is coming out sometime in autumn.
I would definitely rate Alchemist of Souls as one of the best novels of the year and I highly recommend that everyone go and grab the novel when it is released in late-March/early April by Angry Robot Books. If you want a slightly quirky but still highly enjoyable historical fantasy novel then Alchemist of Souls is what you should be getting.
For its fun factor and for being such a damn good novel all around, I give Alchemist of Souls a very warm 9/10 and hope that Anne delivers on the sequel just as well as she did with this one.