The Alchemist Of Souls, written by Anne Lyle, is a book I spotted on several occasions during my search on Amazon for new and exciting fantasy books. It is also a book I am ashamed to admit I discounted several times. The reason was simple: The Alchemist of Souls is historical fantasy and I had never, until I read it, given the genre a go. Instead, I had this weird concept that I wouldn’t like it.
Now I sit here wondering what the hell I was thinking.
There are few books that I have loved as much as this one, and there are fewer still that I have found hard to review simply because of how awesome they are. This book is one of those, and I feel that I almost lack the words to express how much everything in this book seemed so utterly perfect.
Maliverny Caitlyn is a down-on-his-luck swordsman, low-born noble, who has been without an assignment for longer than he likes. And so, when he is summoned to the Tower of London and told that he is to become the bodyguard to the first skrayling ambassador to set foot in England, Mal is both delighted and absolutely crushed: he possesses a secret that could jeopardise his position if it were to be found out, not to mention his own distaste for the creatures.
The skraylings are creatures, humanoid in shape, that come from the New World and have arrived in England as traders of never-before-seen goods. They are more often feared than respected as they refuse to receive the word of Christ, and are therefore seen as creatures of the devil.
Anne Lyle manages to paint the Tudor-era London effortlessly. London comes to life as a busy city, full of life, sounds and smells, and serves as the backdrop to one of the most intriguing stories I have read in a while.
Mal is joined by a vast and colourful cast of characters each just as real as the next, each unique and wonderful in their own way. Two other characters have a POV in this book: Jacob ‘Coby’ Hendricks—the tireman for Suffolk’s Men, a theatre company—and Edmund ‘Ned’ Faulkner, Mal’s gay best friend.
All of the POVs are rich in wonderfully real inner-monologues and conflict, as well as being characters easy to get attached to and with whom I found it extremely easy to empathise. They were probably the most real characters I have encountered in a long, long time. The interactions in between them are effortless and make them all seem ready to get up and walk off the page.
Ned Faulkner is the second POV character of a book that I had read who is also gay. For me, this was an amazing discovery as I am always on the lookout for gay characters in fantasy. Ned was so overtly gay that it was wonderful, and his relationship with Gabriel, another gay actor, was, to me, a highlight of the book. Lyle not only had gay characters in her book but she acted upon it, building upon their gayness as an inherent part of their characters, instead of something hardly ever mentioned because it was taboo. She has created in Ned and Gabriel one of the most lovable pairs I have read in a while, and all I wanted was to see them happily together.
Lyle’s prose is one of the most beautiful I have read in a while, and it is, at times, akin to poetry. She manages to describe everything and everyone with effortless and elegant efficiency, immersing the reader in her re-imagined London with every word that she writes.
I won’t say much about the plot, as I want to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but it was tightly plotted and intriguing from start to finish. Each question answered throughout the book only asks half a dozen more and the pace never lets up, making The Alchemist of Souls a gripping page-turner that had me laughing, smiling, worrying, and could have brought me to the brink of tears a couple of times.
This book managed to mesh all the elements of the books of my childhood (mainly thinking of The Three Musketeers here) with all the magic that I love in fantasy. It simply was a magnificent reads that sits very high in my list of best books I have read this year.