the alchemist of soulsTitle: The Alchemist of Souls

Author: Anne Lyle

Publisher: Angry Robot

Published: Out Now

RRP: Print £8.99 – Kindle £4.38

When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back with them a name out of half forgotten Viking legend – Skayling’s – and following in those explorers wake came red sailed ships, native American goods, and a Skrayling ambassador to Queen Elizebeth I court.

 Mal Catlyn, a down on his luck sword for hire, is seconded to the Skrayling’s guard as the Ambassador’s personal bodyguard – at his behest – but assassinations are the least of Mal’s worries. What he learns about the Skrayling’s, their unholy powers, could cost England her new ally; and Mal his soul.

If you like your historical fiction with a twist then this is for you. Anne Lyle has obviously taken a lot of time to learn about the period she is writing in, the muddied streets of Elizabethan London jump from the page, full of colourful characters, sinister plots and rip roaring adventure. On top of this she has layered an alternative history where Queen Elizabeth I married and has children, as if that wasn’t enough to create another timeline she has added the Skrayling’s – creatures from legend – to add to the political melting pot that was Europe in the late 1500s.

The plots and schemes that were famously around during that time are still there, numerous characters seem to be working to their own agenda, whilst proclaiming to be working for the Crown. The mystery at the core of the story though has nothing to do with the plots and machinations of high ranking peers. It’s a story of lost love, murder and possession.

Mal Catlyn serves well as the main character, he hides secrets of his own, carries a burden that could see him accused a traitor and hanged. He is ably assisted by Ned and Corby – a young gay man and a girl pretending to be a boy, both of whom work in the theatre – both of whom are well equipped to deal with the dangers of living in London at that time, and both of whom on more than one occasion save the day and possibly Mal’s life.

The story rattles along at a healthy pace, there is little time to catch your breath as Mal and his friends go from working for the Crown, to fugitives, to heroes. The action is handled well and the suspense kept bubbling nicely to keep you engaged. If I have any qualms it’s that everyone, no matter their standing in society, seems to have easy access in and out of several important castles – including the Tower of London. I’m unsure what the level of security was in the late 1500s, but I imagine it to have been tighter than this.