Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Anne Lyle's The Alchemist of Souls

The Alchemist of Souls
Anne Lyle
Angry Robot Books
432pp B-format paperback, £8.99
448pp mass-market paperback
$7.99 US $8.99 CAN

I had intended to have this book read and reviewed two or three weeks ago, on or about the release date, but life has been happening at my house, and I'm a little behind.  My apologies to Ms. Lyle and Angry Robot for the delay.  I know Angry Robot likes to have reviews for review copies posted within two weeks of the book's release, and I'm a little beyond that.

Anyway, I was eagerly awaiting this one, and my expectations were higher than usual due to all the positive advance buzz surrounding it.  And while I enjoyed the book, as is often the case in these types of situations, I was somewhat disappointed.

Only somewhat, mind you.  I'll get to that in a bit.

First, a brief overview of what the book is about.  A number of years ago, we're not told exactly when that I noticed, explorers to the New World discovered a race of beings called Skraylings.  They look something like elves, and they've just sent their first ambassador to England, where Elizabeth I sits on the throne.  None of the other countries such as France and Spain have Skraying ambassadors.  This being historical fantasy of the alternate history sort, Elizabeth has a husband and two sons who don't exist in our history.  In honor of the ambassador's arrival, a competition between three rival theater groups has been decreed, with the ambassador serving as the judge. 

Malverny Catlyn is a down on his luck swordsman who is about 26, has no means of support, and a twin brother locked up in Bedlam. That last bit turns out to be important.  Out of nowhere, he gets the job as the ambassador's personal bodyguard.  By specific request of the ambassador.  Whom Mal has never met.  Clearly something is going on.

Coby is a Dutch refugee who is working for one of the theater companies, disguised as a boy.  She's about seventeen.  Her path crosses with Mal's when she's recruited to spy on Mal.  Mal, meanwhile, has been recruited by the Queen's own spymaster to spy on the Skraylings.

There's quite a bit of intrigue as well as a conspiracy.  Unfortunately, it wasn't hard to figure out who was behind the conspiracy.  To me it seemed obvious.

I've never been fond of the trope wherein people, usually women, disguise themselves as someone of the opposite gender, usually men.  I find the comic relief aspects of such a situation to wear thin pretty quickly, even when Shakespeare himself is the one writing the story.  Your mileage may vary.  (In the interest of fairness, I do acknowledge that men dressing as women was common in the theater in those days, and so some of that sort of thing is to be expected in novel where theaters are a central part of the plot.)  And if not played for laughs, it's been my observation that too often the author uses the situation to lecture the reader on women's rights.  One way to throw me out of a story quickly is to have a character in a previous historical time period think, talk, and/or act with late twentieth/early twenty-first century sensibilities and standards.  Ms. Lyle, to her credit resists this temptation.  At least for the most part.  There were a couple of places where that wasn't the case, the most grievous being when Coby was thinking about how women would never go back to wearing skirts if they were ever allowed to wear pants.  Again, this is one of those things where your mileage may vary.

The thing that most disappointed me, however, was what I considered the lack of swordplay for a book promoted as a swashbuckler.  There was some, don't get me wrong, just not enough for my liking, and what there was was brief and over quickly.  Contrast that with Among Thieves, by Douglas Hulick, where the sword fights went on for pages and you never noticed because you were so engrossed in them.  Instead, the emphasis was on the romance, again not unexpected in a novel set in Elizabethan times.  It was just that I couldn't buy into the romance, not the main one between Coby and Mal, or any of the others.  Maybe because in the back of my mind I was thinking How Would Shakespeare Have Written This?, a comparison that no author can win. 

On the positive side, though, Ms. Lyle has done her research and done it well.  Mal Catlyn was actually a historical figure, although nothing like the character here, as Ms. Lyle explains in an afterward.  What impressed me, and impressed me quite favorably, was how well the period came to life.  All the grit and oppression, the poverty and the class system, all were on display.  The world felt lived in, something that is very hard to pull off, even for writers with many more novels to their credit than Ms Lyle.  (This is her debut novel.)

The writing is also high quality.  There were several points in the story, primarily early in the story, where I might have put the book down and not returned to it had it not been for Ms. Lyle's prose.  While it was obvious to me who was behind the conspiracy that targets Mal and the theater group Coby belongs to, the role Mal's twin played in the story kept me guessing until the end.  In fact, it was the ending that sold the book for me.  All immediate plot threads were tied up, but some longer term ones have interesting implications.

The last few pages seemed to be setting up the next novel in the series, in which it appears Mal will go to France.  Of course, he'll be a spy.  I'm interested in seeing what Ms. Lyle will do there, especially if she can bring France to life like she did England.

I realize my remarks have been more negative than positive, but this wasn't a bad book.  It just wasn't quite what I was expecting and not entirely to my taste.  There is very much an audience for it.  I'm just not quite it, although I won't give up on the series yet.  If you think you might like it, check it out.  There's an excerpt below.

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