Alchemist of Souls

Alchemist of Souls (Night’s Masque, Volume I)
by Anne Lyle

Theatre companies compete in Shakespearean England. The Queen reigns on her throne as her two sons take care of most of the day-to-day business of running the kingdom. Lords play their games. The peasants just try to get by. And the Skraylings want an ambassador to England.

Oh, you don’t recall the Skraylings in your history of England? They’re the non-human magic-using inhabitants of the New World. No, not the savages. They’re another matter entirely. The Skraylings love trade, speak a unique language, and have sorcerous abilities.

England needs them as allies. Spain and Portugal both have been currying favor with this strange people, so when the Skraylings request to have an official ambassador to England, the Queen is quick to agree. And when they request a fallen noble by name to serve as bodyguard, the Queen assents – even though she has no idea what his connection is to the Skraylings.

This is Mal’s story. He is the closest man to the ambassador, and so every force of Europe wants his ear. The Queen’s secret service trains him to protect to the best of his ability. Oh, and if he can find out anything about how Skraylings to magic, of course, that would be of great service to the Crown. The French try to bribe him. Other English nobles try to threaten him. And the Pope wants him dead – after all, the Skraylings are soulless creatures, aren’t they?

The new ambassador asks for a tournament of plays to celebrate his arrival. Theatre can be a murderous business as well. Soon theatres are burning to the ground. Mal must find the connection between the theatre and assassination attempts on the Skrayling ambassador.

And why would they request him by name, anyway?

This book had a strange relationship with me. I never had a desire to read it, but the second I started a new chapter, I was enrapt. I’m not entirely sure why that is; Mal is deeply flawed yet likable. The world is fully realized but never overwhelming. The plot is thick but always clear. Yet I would find myself setting the novel down for days at a time with no urge to continue on. Take that for what you will.

But when I read, I was sucked in. The Skraylings walk a fine line; there’s any number of fantasy books that make out Native Americans to be a magical force. This novel doesn’t do that. Instead, Lyle creates a whole separate race!

Lyle also adds something that I usually loath: She features a homosexual main character (to be clear, this is not Mal but one of the other main characters). However, I am very pleased that I never felt preached to. One of the main characters simply has a dark secret he cannot let the public know. Another main character finds this homosexuality terribly evil. She is never made out to be in the wrong for her beliefs. I found the non-demonizing of such an anti-homosexual standpoint rather refreshing. Incidentally, Lyle also deftly balances the state of religion in England at this time. Mal is a closet Catholic, even as Protestants rule the day. Both sides get to shine, and neither is demonized.

My biggest disappoint with the book was the slow reveal of what the Skraylings are. Lyle appropriately paces the narrative, but I think I would have been drawn in far more quickly if we had gotten a chance to meet these strange visitors earlier in the novel.

So, if you like alternative Shakespearean Englands, check this one out. The book doesn’t leave off on a cliffhanger, but sets up a massive conflict down the road I’m looking forward to reading. I think I’ll have to look into the next book in the set!

Legal nuts and bolts: I received this book for free form Angry Robot for this review.

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