In ALCHEMIST OF SOULS, Anne Lyle introduces us to an alternate Elizabethan England in which explorers have discovered Skraylings, an alien species, living in the New World instead of Native Americans. These Skraylings hold magics the humans can only dream of, and over the course of the book we realize these creatures’ magic allows them to do even more than the humans first imagined.
Our story is told through the viewpoint of three primary characters — Maliverny Catlyn, a swordsman assigned to serve as bodyguard to the newly-arrived Skrayling ambassador; Coby, a young woman pretending to be a boy so she can work for a London Theatre; and Ned, a homosexual friend of Mal’s. Normally I wouldn’t mention Ned’s homosexuality in such a manner, as though it’s his defining characteristic, but I’m not sure there he has a single scene in the book in which his homosexuality is not referenced. He proves to be a loyal and courageous character, but these qualities are almost entirely overwhelmed by regular mentions and examples of his homosexuality.
While Catlyn seems as though he would be the primary character in this book (he’s even featured on the book’s outstanding cover), it’s Coby who often seems the most well-drawn character of the trio. She’s clever and courageous as well, and after she falls in love with Mal becomes his greatest ally.
Mal, however, is a bit disappointing, as we don’t get a really good feel for him outside of his desire to protect his brother, and we spend surprisingly little time with him considering that he’s theoretically the chief protagonist.
The Victorian England setting is outstanding and well-researched, and Lyle writes very well, both in her prose and dialogue. It’s an outstanding set-up for a story — an alternate Victorian England with intrigue and spies, and questions about the motivations and abilities of these Skraylings that need to be answered. Unfortunately, it also gets sidetracked by the primary characters’ sexual and gender issues, which often detracted from the plot. Ironically, at the same time that I’d like to have seen the story’s pace pick up, I would have liked to learn more about the characters beyond their sexual proclivities.
In all, it was a good book, but I think the pacing and character development leave plenty of room for improvement for a series that’s built upon a solid foundation thanks to Lyle’s outstanding world-building.