The Alchemist of Souls, by Anne Lyle (Night’s Masque #1)

  • TITLE: The Alchemist of Souls (Night’s Masque #1)
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 5th April 2012

I’ll start by saying this is the first book from this imprint I’ve read; mainly as I’d never really heard of Angry Robot Books before (shame on me!). The majority of the titles I read have been published by Orbit, Gollancz, and Tor, and since I am fairly new to alternate history fantasy, or historical fantasy (a particular flavour that seems very common to the imprint) it’s not a surprise to me that this is my first.

And what a first to begin with! I honestly haven’t had this much fun with a book since Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves. They are very different books, but they share the same sort of cloak-and-dagger flavour.

I must begin by saying that Anne Lyle is a storyweaver of the highest calibre; her elegant prose is nothing short of beautiful. I enjoyed every single second of this book and everything from the characters and their relationships, to the exceptionally tight plotting, to the believable intrigue heralds Lyle as not just an insanely talented new writer, but also a poet and true master of words.

It might be somewhat obvious by now that The Alchemist of Souls was a hit with me. I’ll try not to gush too much hereafter…

I’m very new to real-world or alternative history fantasy—that isn’t of the urban variety—and I am woefully unused to the genre and the way it works, having only read The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, thus far. I’d been under the impression that I might not like a fantasy of this type—that it wouldn’t be “fantasy” enough for me, being set in our real world. In the end, that didn’t matter a jot. The most magical thing about alternate or historical real world fantasy is that anything goes. I suppose that’s why it’s fantasy.

Lyle’s imagination is a vivid and colourful one, and boy does it show through. The Alchemist of Souls offers, alongside the usual life of Elizabethan England, the skraylings—creatures from the New World—and a fashion of alchemical magic and wonder that gives a whole different edge to the story.

The characters are believable and exceptionally well written; there isn’t a single member of the cast who doesn’t vie for your readerly affections—and there certainly isn’t one who doesn’t receive them. I liked everyone. I forget the last time I read a book and liked absolutely everyone. Sure enough, the characters have flaws and the way in which the other characters see them differs depending on POV—it’s interesting and builds a gentle sense of natural conflict and tension that is so very real that it brings the characters to life on a whole new level.

Maliverny Catlyn is the protagonist, and at first glance he appears to be your typical rogue-with-a-fancy-rapier. From a noble line, but down on his luck, Mal doesn’t seem to be anything special, and at first, the supporting cast—player Gabriel “Angel” Parish, scribe, Ned Faulkner, Mal’s friend and Gabriel’s lover, and Coby, a tireman for a troupe of actors with the patronage of Lord Suffolk—seem to be far more interesting and layered. Of course, there is far, far more to Mal than meets the eye—more than even he knows.

Gabriel and Ned begin the story apart, with Ned mooning over an uninterested Mal—but that doesn’t stop Ned hoping—with Gabriel readying himself within his group of players, Suffolk’s Men, headed by Master Naismith for a playing contest, whilst Mal is conveyed to the Tower of London in questionable circumstances, for reasons contrary to his expectations. Meanwhile Coby—Jacob Hendricks—is a young Dutch boy fending for himself whilst holding a treacherous secret to his chest. The events of the story all intertwine and pull the characters closer together, with unexpected revelations and circumstances along the way.

Not one character is under- or overdone and when the viewpoint skips from one to another, there is no sense of lost pace or momentum. All the characters are equally entertaining and with equally riveting plot arcs of their own.

I particularly enjoyed the way Lyle handles homosexuality and gay sex. Since she’s a woman, I’m certain it’s something she’s never experienced, but instead of treating it as something alien, she appears to write simply as though she were writing love/sex scenes between any two characters that share lust or love for one another. And the prose is all the richer for it. I haven’t read many gay sex scenes in fantasy. In fact, the only character I’ve read who is homosexual is The Legends of the Red Sun’s (Mark Charan Newton) Brynd Lathraea. There was something more to the relationships between Lyle’s men, something far more passionate and real.

As a bisexual male, I definitely appreciated a break from swooning maidens and heroes with their eyes agog at the heroine’s fine, fine cleavage. It was a refreshing change, and a fantastic reminder of how much closer men used to be with one another, in light of the role women played, historically, in Lyle’s chosen time-setting. If we’re not mincing words; I bloody loved it.

There are more twists, plots, and subtle machinations in The Alchemist of Souls than you can shake a pointy thing at—and damn does Lyle write every second, every detail, every thread so impeccably well that you’d think she’s been writing books for centuries. Yes, she’s that good.

It has been a long time since I encountered an author whose work I would describe as poetry also. Anne Lyle is one such author. The Alchemist of Souls, as a work of elegant fantasy prose, should be considered alongside Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and (by my favour) Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth.

Anne Lyle’s writing is beautiful, elegant and gripping; be prepared to be swept away to a rich and colourful depiction of a different Elizabethan England, where treachery and danger abound.


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