June 17, 2012

Book Review: The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

Plenty of people set their novels during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. It's the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare and a bunch of other things -- I have no particular interest in the period, myself. Fortunately, Anne Lyle's debut Elizabethan fantasy novel, Alchemist of Souls, is an excellent story that uses its Elizabethan setting to the best effect without relying on it for drama.

Alchemist of Souls is fantasy, but it rests on a solidly SFnal question: What if a culture more advanced than the Europeans existed between England and the New World? Say, in the form of a group of nonhumans called Skraelings living in Vinland? How would that change the fate fo Europe?

While the bulk of the plot in Alchemist of Souls is driven by aristocrats, our heroes are not so lofty or powerful. Catlyn would have been an aristocrat if his older brother hadn't gambled the family fortune away. To make ends meet, he shares a bed with a copyist named Ned, who hangs around with theater folk because he suffers the misfortune of being gay in Elizabethan England. Starring alongside them is a girl named Jacob, who has been living as a boy ever since the war with the Dutch claimed her family. She sews dresses for the boys in the theater, bringing her in contact with Ned, and so on.

One day, for no reason that humans can understand, the Skraelings decide to send an ambassador to Elizabeth's court. The ambassador wants Catlyn to be his bodyguard.  Right at the beginning, the novel proposes questions about why Catlyn has been chosen and what the threats the ambassador's life will turn out to be. By the end, it finds answers that are far stranger than anything I could've predicted.

Alchemist of Souls has sword fights, explosions, and intrigue. Lyle's crisp, precise writing is perfect for the story she's chosen to tell. She drops enough little historical details into the story that I'm willing to trust her on the big things. Most importantly, she doesn't expect me to know who people like Lord Walsingham are, or why they're important, before she explains. Lyle lets that information come out in the natural flow of the story, so I don't feel like I've fallen out of the novel and into a textbook.

Alchemist of Souls is a fine book by any standard. What makes this book stand out for me is how it includes all kinds of different people, and avoids being just another edition of Straight White Guy Stories. It does all of this without compromising its historical setting. Alchemist of Souls is too awesome to be constrained by narrow-minded fantasy tropes. It is the first book in a series, so it does leave the reader with the hook for the next story. Still, I was satisfied by the way almost all of the plot threads were wrapped up in time for the end. I recommend Alchemist of Souls wholeheartedly, and I will definitely be picking up the sequel.

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