Tuesday, 7 August 2012
The Alchemist of Souls - Book Review
The Alchemist of Souls is a fantasy alternate-history by Anne Lyle. Set in Elizabethan England, it follows two characters: the down-on-his-luck swordsman Mal, and Coby, a girl masquerading as a boy, who is working as the tireman of a theatre company. When Mal is hired to protect the Skrayling ambassador during his stay in London, and Coby’s theatre company is to act in a competition in the ambassador’s honour, their lives are drawn together. Meanwhile, something very strange and sinister is going on, something that involves the Skrayling creatures of Viking legend discovered in the New World. As Mal learns more about the Skraylings’ powers, he realises that England’s alliance with the Skraylings may be under threat, and that his own soul is in jeopardy.
The period detail in this book is beautiful, and the care and attention with which it must have been researched shines in every scene. London is gritty, dirty, and alive. The Tower, the houses small and large, the streets, the theatre; they all feel so vivid and completely authentic. The scenes involving Coby and the actors are particularly wonderful, with fascinating details about the roles, structure, costumes and props, and other elements that make up Elizabethan theatre. For me, the theatre sections also really complemented the setting, as well as the cross-dressing of one of the main characters, giving the story a Shakespearean air. I thought this added a nice touch to events, as if the whole story is a play unfolding before us. This also complemented the theme of intrigue, plots and spies that runs through the novel. Just as in a play, things are not always what they seem, while others may be staged or in disguise. As the audience’s attention is diverted one way, something more sinister is going on behind the scenes.
This attention to detail, as well as the author’s clever interweaving of various different elements in the story, is what really brings the book to life. It also positions the novel in a fairly unique place in fantasy literature. Although the Elizabethan era seems to be popular in other genres, particularly mystery and crime, it is much less common in fantasy, where Medieval, fairytale, Victorian, and modern-day influences tend to dominate. A story that combines a gritty, realistic feeling Elizabethan London with fantasy elements of magic and strange creatures is something new and exciting. Shakespearean Urban Fantasy? Tudorpunk? Whatever you call it, it’s highly enjoyable.
The story is mostly quite slow-paced, driven by characters and intrigue rather than by a lot of action. The book never feels sluggish or dull, however, as the story is extremely involving throughout. Spies, plots, political intrigue; these are all things I would expect and want from an Elizabethan setting, and I was certainly not disappointed. The characters are also well written and compelling. Their actions, beliefs and motivations feel realistic to the time, but they also feel like the actions of real people. They are not cardboard cutouts of how Elizabethan men and women may have been; they are sympathetic characters who the reader can really believe in. At times I found myself getting a little frustrated with Ned, but he really redeemed himself towards the end, and I loved Gabriel throughout. Coby is a wonderful heroine and a really deep, interesting character (so much more than a love interest or sidekick), but for me she did often steal the show from Mal, and there were points where I wished she could have had more to do. Happily, it’s her picture all over the cover of the second book, so I think I may have my wish! However, this is not to say that Mal is not solid hero material; he’s likeable and sympathetic at all times, dashing, skilled, and intelligent, and he shows tenderness with his brother as well as a refreshing tolerance toward other people’s beliefs.
But perhaps my favourite character was Kiiren, the Skrayling Ambassador, who had just the right touch of mystery, ambiguity, kindness and charm to make him both extremely intriguing and really likeable. I quickly found myself rooting for him even when I wasn’t quite sure if I should be. The Skraylings were fascinating throughout the story, and I can’t wait to find out more about their culture and intent in the later books.
The end of the story was intense and exciting, even though it did feel just a little rushed at points. The mystery has been half-answered, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion but leaving questions open for the sequel. This is a hugely enjoyable story with a wonderful sense of setting, great characters, and careful attention to detail. Can’t wait for the next one!