ALCHEMIST OF SOULS:
Night’s Masque Volume 1.
By Anne Lyle.
In the shadowed streets of Southwark, sword for hire Mal Catlyn and his loyal friend Ned try to figure out how to earn some money. Mal has a sick brother to care for and Ned is a struggling actor. Seeking solace in their local London pub their peace is soon shattered by the appearance of the Tower Guard, and unfortunately it is Mal they are looking for. Panicked, Mal flees, but the guards are hot on his trail and he is captured and taken to the forbidding Tower of London.
Lucky for Mal his visit brings opportunity rather than death and he finds himself the recipient of a commission from no less than the Queen of England herself. With his instructions and a happy retainer in hand, Mal spends a frivolous last free night with Ned before he begins his duty as bodyguard to a foreign ambassador.
The skraylings are a strange race from overseas, tall with patterened faces and silver-streaked hair. Upon arriving in the skrayling settlement everything seems uncomfortably familiar to Mal and strange dreams convince him that there is more to his own history than he knew. But what the dreams mean or whether they are indeed real elements from his past is not something Mal is sure of just yet.
The political situation in London is precarious and Mal finds himself in the middle of it all; being a bodyguard forces him to take on more than he expected. Not only does he now have political plots and religious intrigues to concern him, the reality of his brother's condition has become more pressing. Sandy has a demon inside him that no amount of doctoring has ever been able to solve and, now Mal is under threat, his twin beomes an unwitting pawn.
Coby works tirelessly in the theatre in preparation for the special performance in honour of the skrayling ambassador. She lives under the radar judiciously performing her duties without question and without drawing unwanted attention to herself. But Coby speaks the Tradetalk language that is essential for communicating with the skraylings and is recruited to aid Mal in his mission. This brings both good tidings and bad, and her closely guarded secrets are in danger of being revealed.
Alchemist of Souls contains just the right balance of pace and action, magic and mystery, tension, betrayal and intrigue that you would expect from historical fantasy. Lyle takes us to an alternate London where the threat of a strange and foreign race is but one of the problems the rulers face, and issues of gender, faith and control are explored in an engaging narrative. Throuhgout the book the intrigue increases and the threads of the story converge to a satisfying climax, the end promising even more in book two.
I am always interested in debut novels and Alchemist of Souls caught my eye long before it was due out, mostly because of a clever online campaign introducing the protagonist through an entertaining and informative Twitter feed, so I felt like I was immersed in Mal's world before I had even opened the book. Though the usual elements of fantasy are there, the story has a unique feel and for that reason I think it will stand out from other releases this year.