The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods–and a skrayling ambassador–to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally–and Mal his soul.

Anne Lyle’s The Alchemist of Souls was my May book club read with Fantasy Faction. I don’t usually read fantasy stories based on real history but I think Lyle has found the right balance between the real and the imaginary. For me the story would have worked just as well as a historical fiction with the fantasy elements omitted.

Lyle is a great writer as evident in her expertly described vision of Elizabethan England and her fascinating characters. Although I struggled a bit at the beginning as I found the pacing a little slow but the plot and mystery had me intrigued right to the end. I really want to understand why the skrayling ambassador is so interested in Mal, who seems like just a regular sword for hire. Besides the plot, I also enjoyed reading the developing relationship between Mal and Coby and I hope we get to see more of it in the next book.

It is interesting to see how Lyle’s believe was brought to life in this book in regards to gender issues. Coby is a budding young woman who has to hide her sex in order to survive on her own in a male dominated world; the skraylings revolve around a matriarchy where they would seek approval from the females and then there are the gay characters who have to deal with persecution. I think it is great that Lyle is calling attention to these issues as we still face them in this day and age.

The ending leaves me with plenty of questions and I wonder how they will be addressed in the forthcoming book The Merchant of Dreams?

The Alchemist of Souls is a wonderful début and a brilliant start to the Night’s Masque series and will definitely appeal to both historical fiction and fantasy fans.