Whenever I hear the words “historical fantasy,” I confess one name tends to leap to mind: Guy Gavriel Kay. Having only recently (geologically speaking) been introduced to the cult of this literary great, I confess that he has given the genre new life in my eyes, and laid a rather hefty level for other participants to aspire to.
This said, The Alchemist of Souls is one of these aspirants, being set in the Elizabethan era—an era utterly ripe for adventure, politicking, or general miscreantism of any sort. This being a stand-alone (another oh-so-glorious rarity amongst its kind), it’s not a book that can stand to waste any time; nor does it. It puts us at the time of the grand American discovery, in the shoes of the unfortunate Mal, a (well I suppose that’s pretty standard) once grandiose swordsman reduced to mercenary work, chiefly as the bodyguard to the Skrayling ambassador—a people discovered in the aforementioned New World.
The Skraylings are also where the magical/fantastical elements come in, as these folk are possessed of some rather strange capabilities therein. Unfortunately, Mal discovers those abilities may provide some hazard rather contrary to the whole…ambassadorial thing. Join him with another classic trope of a scheming girl masquerading as a boy, and some all around plotting, and the recipe is set for some fine adventurous dining.
In spite of some traditional elements, however, The Alchemist of Souls proves that a dash of “cliché” need not mean an instant rolling of the eyes—it constantly takes those traditional elements and turns them on their head. It plays with the classics and brings them to delightful ends; cliché does not become a lack of detail, for it is a world of details. The ending is satisfying, the world and the characters alike breathe with human life—which is to say, they feel natural. They can also be biased as hell—because, well, history and all that.
Which is, when you think about it, par for the course. We see the Elizabethan Age as a golden one, and in many regards, it was. However, even the shiniest of beacons come with their flaws—seedy plotting, crafty intrigue, bigots, violence. Nothing’s perfect; nor does our author attempt to paint this world as such, and it rings all the truer for it.
Essentially, you have a vibrant historical setting, injected with a touch of the magical, intricate characters, and some pretty solid surprises. In other words? It’s good. It’s very good. It’s a delightful addition to the historical fantasy genre, and should not be missed by any fans of that genre.