Anne Lyle embarks on an ambitious series in The Alchemist of Souls, combining alternative history, fantasy and historical fiction in Elizabethan England. In Lyle’s England, not only has Queen Elizabeth married her devoted friend Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, but they also have two sons, Robert and Arthur, creating a twist in history that changes the world of Elizabeth as we know it. The second surprising shift in history comes in the form of an intelligent, mysterious race called the skrayling, encountered in the New World by explorers and brought back to England as allies.
The two major historical twists notwithstanding, the world Lyle creates in The Alchemist of Souls is still filled with Elizabethan tradition. Acting and the theater play a large role in the story, and Lyle’s attention to the behind the scenes backstage world of the theater is one of the high points of the novel. Court intrigue and mystery abound, which should delight the reader throughout the book.
The story centers on the young Maliverny (Mal) Catlyn, a down-on-his-luck swordsman with a dark past. For reasons unknown Mal is forced into service of the Queen as the personal bodyguard for the skrayling ambassador. Mal has a complicated history with the skraylings, and worries he is being punished by being chosen for the task. Unsure of what he was truly hired to do, Mal enters into a world in which he can trust no one.
The other point of view character in the story is a young girl named Coby. Coby disguises herself as a boy named Jacob, and works as an apprentice to Master Naismith, the director of a theater group. The theater group is building a new theater funded by skrayling merchants. Coby speaks Tradetalk, the simple common language that the humans and aliens have devised to communicate. Because of this skill, Coby is enlisted to teach Mal what little she knows of the skrayling and Tradetalk, before Mal meets the skrayling ambassador.
The story progresses nicely, with many little mysteries revealed throughout the novel. The skrayling ambassador, Kiiren, has his own motives for his relationship with England and Mal is a pivotal piece of his plans. Lyle’s depiction of the skraylings is skillfully done; she never portrays the skraylings to be one dimensional or used as a prop for the human characters; instead they are shown as having a diverse culture of their own.
The only jarring issue in the novel was Lyle’s handling of sexuality. While attempting to set a gritty tone, Lyle instead beats the reader over the head with reminders that certain characters are gay. Similarly, Coby’s budding romantic relationship with Mal is completely unconvincing and a bit disturbing, as Mal is 25 and Coby is revealed to be premenstrual (presumably between the age of 10 and 14). The recurring, overt sexual references serve no purpose in the plot whatsoever and the story suffer for their repeated inclusions.
Overall, the intriguing premise of the skraylings, combined with the historical twist on Elizabethan England was enough to keep me satisfied despite some of the missteps in Lyle’s novel The Alchemist of Souls. The book is fast-paced and fun; it is an easy read when you are in the mood for a bit of fantasy and courtly scheming.