No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, August 25, 2013

2013/26: The Alchemist of Souls -- Anne Lyle

One more thing that Walsingham would never hear from his own lips. Perhaps he should make a list, as Cecil was reputedly so fond of doing:
Item: one treasonous letter from the Spanish.
Item: one initiation into an illegal secret society.
Item: one murder of a skrayling, witness to. [p.176]
London, 1593: Kit Marlowe is dead (and warrants only a passing mention in this novel); Queen Elizabeth is mourning the death of her husband Robert Dudley; their son, Robert, is looking forward to the birth of his own second son; as ever, the clandestine business of politics and preference continues apace.

Maliverny Catlyn is the son of a diplomat, down on his luck and reduced to sharing lodgings with scrivener Ned Faulkner. Mal's twin brother, Sandy, is in Bedlam, and any money Mal makes goes to the warders there, in the hope of making his brother more comfortable. The two share a frightful secret concerning the skraylings, whose ambassador has arrived in London.

'Skraeling' is the term used in the Norse sagas to refer to the original inhabitants of Greenland, more commonly known as Inuit. In Anne Lyle's alternate history they're non-humans, fanged and blue-skinned and considerably more advanced than any European society. Mal, who has reason to avoid the skraylings, finds himself employed (for an immense wage) as bodyguard to Kiiren, the Skrayling ambassador. Little by little it becomes clear that this career opportunity is not as random as it first appears.

Meanwhile Ned Faulkner is pining after gorgeous actor Gabriel Parrish, and aggravating the third viewpoint character: Coby Hendricks, tireman to player-troupe Suffolk's Men. Coby has successfully concealed, for five years, the fact that she is actually a girl, rather than the shy youth she appears to be.

The three are drawn into a spidery, treasonous plot. There are masks (and masques) everywhere -- obvious enough in the theatre that is Coby's and Ned's livelihood, but there are plenty of deceptions in the upper echelons of society. Mal isn't the only gentleman down on his luck, nor the only one keeping a Frightful Secret concerning the skraylings ...

The Alchemist of Souls is richly detailed, with a complex layered plot and some real surprises. I liked the skraylings, and the (mundane, unexceptional) xenophobia they elicit from the English. Lyle does an excellent job at portraying a race who are not only non-human (they can't 'see' the colour red; they are fanged; they have mysterious powers) but individuated: Kiiren, the ambassador, is markedly different to other skrayling characters, and a likeable person to boot. His developing friendship with Mal is one of the highlights of the book.

The more I think about this novel, the keener I am to read the sequel, which is now out.

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