Review: The Alchemist of Souls (Night’s Masque Vol. 1)

by Anne Lyle

Angry Robot, out April 5

In Elizabethan London, the population are still coming to terms with the alien skraylings who walk among them. But are they right to be suspicious?

The first book in Anne Lyle’s Night’s Masque trilogy is set in an alternate Elizabethan England that is very similar to the one we know from countless films like Shakespeare in Love, but subtly different. The Mirror, not the Globe, stands on the south bank of the Thames at Southwark; Queen Bess is an embittered widow, not the renowned Virgin Queen. And there are visitors from the New World, who have their own civilisation, their own culture – and, unsurprisingly, a lot of enemies.

On one level, Lyle’s story is a classic swashbuckling tale, with Sir Francis Walsingham and his intelligencers involving various not-so-innocents in their schemes, especially Mal Catlyn, a man with various secrets of his own relating to the skraylings, who is persuaded to become the bodyguard to the visiting skrayling ambassador.

In fact everyone in this novel has secrets – a pair of gay lovers have to hide their affections; a young Dutch girl is masquerading as a boy, and knows the dreadful penalty that will befall her if she is discovered; the skrayling ambassador isn’t being open with his hosts.

Lyle points out the hypocrisies at the heart of a society that encourages one set of behaviour for its entertainment yet expects the exact opposite from those who provide that entertainment. It’s one of a number of points that are made in a subtle way as Catyln and his allies try to work out what everyone is up to, and prevent a potential catastrophe.

Verdict: An engrossing read that every so often pulls the carpet out from beneath your expectations.  8/10

Paul Simpson

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