Sunday, 22 January 2012

Review | The Alchemist of Souls - Anne Lyle

The tale of my anticipation for The Alchemist of Souls spans - well, not so much decades, but a good six months. My most anticipated read of 2012 in my End of the Year Awards, you can imagine the ensuing Jacob-to-Gollum transformation when I got my hands on a copy. And after I actually read it? I can only say this: it lives up to every single one of my exaggerated expectations. It started out on my list of books to anticipate, but I have absolutely no doubt that it'll make my list of the best books of this year. It's only January, I know - but trust me when I say Alchemist is just that good.

So, why was I so excited? The Alchemist of Souls is part of the grand tradition of historical fantasy - a subgenre that includes one of my other favourite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay. (One day the Cult of Kay and I shall achieve world domination, but that's another tale). Anyway - historical fantasy, but also, historical fantasy set in the Elizabethan era: an exciting period by any measures. Now add a pinch of what Alchemist is actually about... Mal, a once well-to-do swordsman on the down and out. His new job? Bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador - a people discovered in the New World, and , of course, possessed of strange magics. As his friendship with the ambassador develops, Mal's past and the Skraylings' abilities could threaten everything they work towards. But for a 500 page novel like this, a single character doesn't suffice. There's also Coby, the traditional girl-masquerading-as-boy. If that seems tired, well, she's also the tireman (costumer) for a theatrical company with major stakes in the contest to be held for the ambassador. So - plenty of scheming on all sides...

But where The Alchemist of Souls really shines is in its execution. From my hasty summary, you can likely spot a number of traditional plot elements. But throughout this 500 page novel, whenever I spotted a hint of cliche; a touch of the traditional, it was subverted: quite a feat! I started by reading only a hundred pages, but by the end of the evening I'd read every single word in the book. And with good reason. This is quite literally a joy to read: the characters live and breathe, the period (though alternate history) is gloriously detailed, and the finale fantastically final - and just a hint bittersweet.

I think the key to the characterisation here is that Lyle makes no attempt to force likeability - it happens naturally. Mal isn't perfect, and he doesn't stand aside from most prejudices of his time. It's this which makes us accept him as a realistic character. And, of course, contrast him with Kiiren, from the more liberal yet genuinely alien Skrayling culture. Kiiren in particular is a wonderful character, especially once his own motives are exposed: yes, he's a kind and likeable character, but he does have a purpose. The one slight 'but...' I have with characterisation here is that some of our characters seem to accept the homosexual relationships more easily than history would suggest.

The Elizabethan period is truly brought to life here - flaws included. This is Elizabethan england in its dirty splendour, and it's wonderful: the seedy would of theatres, petty intrigues, and prejudice. The theatres especially. And of course, historical characters play their own roles - and Walsingham is of particular note. (Ie. He's brilliant, dammit).

Really, what can I say? A rich historical setting, some gloriously ambiguous characters, and a whole lot of unexpected surprise collide to make this unmissable for any fan of historical fantasy. An absolute masterpiece of the genre, The Alchemist of Souls will make my end of the year awards, I have no doubt. Not Kay, but something altogether different, Alchemist of Souls had me wanting a sequel even before the book's release date.  Go read it.

...When it comes out. Achemist of Souls is out on the 5th of April here in the UK; the 27th of March in the US and in ebook format. You can preorder it here! UK / US


  1. I don't think I've come across this book yet but it does sound good, and although it's been done several times I still enjoy storyline featuring girls masquerading as boys (as long as they are pulled off well) So I'm heading over the The Book Depository now to see about ordering this one. Thanks for the great review.

  2. No, it's out in two months time - and yup, it's absolutely brilliant. The Coby storyline isn't the best part of the novel (I always prefer Mal), but it's still pulled off pretty well, so yep - it's not too traditionally done at all.

    Oh, and no problem. ;) Hope you enjoy the book!

  3. Thanks, Jacob! BTW that's actually 27th March, for the ebook worldwide and the US paperback - the UK paperback is out on April 5th.

  4. Oh no! (Always misread numbers - I'll get that fixed now). And you're welcome - 'twas a pleasure to read.

  5. I honestly was just going to give this a pass, but now I guess I'll have to give it a go. :)

    1. Ahh, excellent! this one is next on my list :)

  6. @ Bryce: Haha, that would have been a shame - for me, it really was that good. Talking of historical fantasy... Read much GGK?

    @ FantasyNibbles: Great! I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it.

  7. I was going to buy the book anyway, having come across Anne on SFF Chronicles and always found her highly insightful and likeable. But now you've gone and compared her work to that of Guy Gavriel Kay, who (maybe alongside George RR Martin) is easily my favourite author in the fantasy genre.

    No doubt Anne's work has its own unique character, but any author whose name can be mentioned in the same sentence as that of GGK must be very special.

  8. While I can't claim GGK as outright favourite, he's one of the only authors where the term beautiful can easily be applied! Glad to hear from another Kay fan - a number of readers dislike Kay for the 'flowery' prose. And having said that - Anne really is that good. It's not the same kind of novel at all - Kay is high and tragic; Alchemist more purely entertaining, but this is definitely worthy of comparison in terms of quality!

  9. Read Tigana only, but I've been meaning to read more. Tigana is one of my favorites.

  10. Same. Song for Arbonne comes in a close second, but Brandin is one of the best antagonists I've read.