The Alchemist of Souls
by Anne Lyle
First, the things about this book that I appreciate.
I appreciate, first and foremost, that Lyle was inspired (as she describes in her author’s note) by a name she came across in her research; she said that as soon as she saw the name Maliverny Catlyn, a minor but genuine historical personage, she had to use that name in her book. She’s completely right; the name belongs on the hero she created for this book; and since my own book was also inspired partly by a name, I approve of this wholeheartedly.
I appreciate that the book is exhaustively researched and detailed; that it covers quite a number of aspects of Elizabethan English life; I appreciate that it focuses on the theatre of the time but barely mentions Shakespeare. I appreciate that she made subtle changes, such as making Elizabeth I marry and bear two sons to succeed her, while keeping so many other things historically accurate (As far as I know, that is): that’s a fine line to walk, and she does it well. I really appreciated the religious and political tension she was able to capture; the intrigues were excellent.
I appreciate the skraylings as a theme: this is the major change that turns this into fantasy instead of a historical novel, that when the European explorers traveled to the New World, they discovered not merely the Native American populations, but also a humanoid race with an advanced civilization and apparent control over magic. So now Europe has a new ally to woo and also plot against in their wars between Catholic France and Spain, and Protestant England. It’s a good theme, and it’s done well.
I appreciated that there are strong gay characters and nobody really thinks too much about it. They get some grief for being all sinful and stuff, even from one of the other characters, which Lyle takes advantage of to create a great scene where the bigot gets called out for her hypocrisy. It’s extremely well done, and the most romantic aspect of the book, which does have a variety of romantic entanglements between the several characters.
What I did not appreciate about the book:
It’s too long. I don’t like to say that, since I’m a wordy writer myself, and I love 1000-page epic fantasies like the work of Robert Jordan and GRRM and the like. But this one dragged. There were a few too many characters and a few too many plotlines, and those plotlines went on for too long. While the two main gay characters were interesting in and of themselves, they could have been removed from the story entirely without any real loss to the plot, and the same goes for the weeks of buildup to the theatrical competition. There’s a lot of life in the book, which also has its own attraction, but isn’t necessary for this story. It’s a bit bothersome because this is the first in a series, and it’s like Lyle couldn’t stand to hold back and put some of the interesting things into later books, so she packed it all into this one – and it’s too much.
Though I liked them thematically, I didn’t really care for the skraylings. There were some really interesting tidbits that showed excellent thought and planning from Lyle – like the linguistic nugget that has the skrayling/English pidgin avoiding the letters p, b, and m, because skraylings find them effeminate; and the reason for this is that the skraylings show their canines as a gesture of assertiveness and dominance, and those three letters are the only sounds that require you to close your mouth entirely. That is cool as hell. (Though in the actual writing of the pidgin, Lyle uses normal English, essentially leaving the pidgin implied; so what the hell? I mean, that’s just lazy. There was a guy wrote an entire novel without the letter E, and you can’t write a few lines of dialogue without those three letters? THAT LAST SENTENCE DID IT AND IT WASN’T EVEN HARD! THERE, I DID IT AGAIN!) But the ambassador is a weak character, and none of the other skraylings are given a chance to stand out; I don’t understand the ambassador’s particular personal situation, nor the connection to Mal Catlyn; I don’t like the way Mal just keeps running away, and the ambassador passively lets him go. I just didn’t think much of them.
I hate the ending. At the end of this longish slowish book is a rapid-fire explosion of events that suddenly introduce a new bad guy, have a surprise twist regarding the main character and his family, grant magical powers where they haven’t been before, throw the characters into a search-and-rescue and also a duel to the death, and then end with the bad guys sort of winning. It’s clearly a set-up for the next book(s), and I doubt the bad guys will win in the end; but it made this particular book freaking annoying. Which makes me not want to read the next books.
It’s too bad about this book, because it does have some good elements; but the plotting and pace make it not worth the time. Don’t recommend.