Book Review: The Alchemist of Souls

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle, Night's Masque #1

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.


The Alchemist of Souls is a book that has been on my must read list for a very long time. Ever since I found out about this title it has been luring at me. Luckily I got the opportunity to finally review The Alchemist of Souls and all I can say is wow. This isn't your ordinary historical fiction as Anne Lyle greatly builds up her world in a deft way, using an important timeframe in Elizabethan London, and spinning it in her own direction. I have to admit that I haven't read that much historical fiction set in England in this time, my historical fiction experience mostly is from the roman times. I very much enjoyed venturing into the Tudor setting as this was new to me. From the first pages Anne Lyle emerges you into a rich and intriguing world, you are in the hands of a great storyteller!

The first thing that will fall to note to many readers is the alternate history setting that Anny Lyle creates. Imagine an Tudor - Elizabethan London wherein Elizabeth got to marry the love of her life Robert Dudely and where she had the best time of her life with him going as far as having children and remaining a solid position on the throne. This is only the first part of the alternate England that Anne Lyle creates, the second part is from discovering the New World and all it's riches, think on one part the rich spices they brought home from the oriental place but on the other part from the frigid lands of Scandinavia they brought back a race of people known in the old Viking legends as: skraylings. These skraylings aren't your normal people like the English themselves, though they are a bit of the workhorses of society and people trust them, they have an air of immediate mystery surrounding them. Because they something of innate magic within them. I really have to give a hand to Anny Lyle for the setting she manages to create in The Alchemist of Souls, the whole Tudor era combined with the mystery that the skraylings are creates a rich and atmospheric setting.

In The Alchemist of Souls you follow two storyline the first one is of Mal Catlyn and the second one is of Coby. Mal lives day by day and has had a better time in his life. He likes to take on a gamble once in a while and this has caused him to be in a precarious situation. Situations that put him in a position where all he can do is accept the job offered to him. Mal is appointed a position of bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador Kiiren. Though Mal cannot get around not to accept this job he does have a hard time really fitting in (at the start), and does accept this job with a rather high reluctancy. What Mal doesn't know is that there are many more motives surrounding him being appointed bodyguard of the ambassador. From the first day Mal has a tough time keeping the ambassador alive as assassination attempts start to happen right from the start. As for the second one of Coby, Coby works at a play performance called the Mirror and together with two other play houses they have to give an stage performance to the skrayling ambassador, and he has to decide who is the winner. By the close proximity of Mal - Kiiren - Coby, their storyline soon become intermingled with each other. When Mal manages to fend of an assassin that was set out to get rid of Kiiren, things are set into motion regarding the Mirror's performance, they wanted to perform a skrayling play and their stage group is partially funded by the skraylings. From this point onwards the whole story is thrown into a rapid action sequence that really got me clued to the pages. Around every corner there is someone that you cannot trust, people get killed, assassination attempts are being made and it all topped up with muskets being fired and swashbuckling sword fights. In The Alchemist of Souls Anne Lyle has created on one hand a beautiful story, with the world building and excellent visualization and England and on the other hand a dark and gruesome story that takes place in the dark corridors and underground of this same London, very intriguing. 

I already mentioned the main characters that you follow in The Alchemist of Souls namely Mal and Coby. Just as the strong narration that Anne Lyle provides she also clearly shows how to build interesting characters. Mal is really a "special" case, granted he hasn't had the easiest life but he isn't or wasn't trying to make the better of it. Ex-gambler and worn-out swordsmen he doesn't have a lot to look forward to. Added to this comes the fact that he has to take care for his twin brother Sandy, he has been in a sort of asylum, since Mal is the only one taking care of Sandy all his funds go there, he also visits his brother often but now with this new job as bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador even this becomes sporadic. And all Mal want is to have everything nice for his brother. I found that Mal was just one of those character that you will connect to from the first time you read about him, not to give him any sympathy, but more to cheer him on to keep up and go into the right direction. But what would a good character be with some added allures? Well this is not to be missed, above you can read that the intent with which Mal was optioned to be a bodyguard has some ulterior motives, well Mal's history, as you will find out when you read The Alchemist of Souls also has a nice twist to it. Which I will, of course, not reveal but lets say it has something to do with the skraylings... Next up is Coby character, for clearance sake I do have to reveal what Coby is else I can't justify my opinion. Coby is a gril-dressed-boy. Living in a harse time, being a girl can be dangerous. She is still young and doesn't show any signs of feminism, yet. I liked how Anne Lyle wrote up her character, she is a determined young woman, not shy to speak her mind and show what she can do. Since both Mal and Coby's storyline start to intermingle their relation also starts to grow in an intersting way, Coby start to develop feeling for Mal but Mal clearly does not see this... In the end something do become inevitable, but only work for the better for both characters. Next to these two main characters there are a few side characters like the skrayling ambassador Kiiren that really help build a solid character cast for The Alchemist of Souls. I am very curious to see just to which level Anne Lyle will bring these characters. 

Perhaps one of the most wonderful and alluring things about the world that Anne Lyle has created in The Alchemist of Souls are the skraylings themselves. They hold something of magic within them but it isn't the all powerful spell-flinging fireballs, call down lightning from above kind of magic. No. It's subtle and deft and more in the lines of the dark, dark arts. The magic isn't paraded with but as soon as you find out what the skrayling can do, you will revise every character you have met so far and just look at what their motives are how they have said several things and how they have acted upon others. Who can you really trust?

The ending of The Alchemist of Souls is one of those endings that will get you excited for the sequel. Anne Lyle has proposed a pretty cool concept of just what the skraylings are capable of... there are dark times ahead for Mal and Coby...

With The Alchemist of Souls, Anne Lyle has created an absorbing and rich alternate history story. Though this is my first venture into the Tudor setting of England, Anne Lyle has readily convinced me to pick up more books in this same setting, but whether they will be on par with The Alchemist of Souls remains to be seen. The whole setting that Anne Lyle creates taken together with the concept of the skrayling and the darker undertones that soon become apparent and the set of engaging characters really make The Alchemist of Souls stand out. As I have already said, dark times are encroaching upon Mal and Coby. The Night's Masque is off to a terrific start with The Alchemist of Souls, the cliffhanger moment does a lot to get you excited for the sequel: The Merchant of Dreams. Defenitly a recommendation for readers that enjoy their alternate history with great world building and characters and a whole lot of surprises to keep you glued to the pages! 

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