Book Review – The Alchemist of Souls
by Rose Hill
The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle
Review: 3 out of 5 stars
I’m really torn on this book. There are some things about this book that I loved, and then a few things that really ruined it for me. In general, each thing I loved is directly connected to something that ruined it. So, I’ll divide my thoughts in two.
What I loved:
- This book drew me in immediately and I didn’t want to put it down. It’s been so long since a book did that. I loved that it grabbed my interest and held it throughout the novel.
- One of the three POV characters was openly gay and made no apologies for it. That was incredibly refreshing.
- The worldbuilding was detailed and set so firmly in London in that time period.
- The plot was complex and engaging.
- There were actual consequences to the characters doing things outside of the everyday norm. Mal messes with the schedule of the ambassador—he gets beaten and called before the Queen. Ned kills someone, he has to go to jail and court for it. Actual consequences are so rarely found in Fantasy.
What bothered me:
- The intricate plot that I loved so much never really got explained. It was wrapped up, but I couldn’t quite figure out how. I feel like there were a few steps missing in there that the author and character was aware of, that simply didn’t make it so far as being put on the page. I loved this intricate plot all the way to the end, and the end ruined it because it just sort of…stopped. There was no explanation of what happened, or any acknowledgement from the characters that an explanation was missing.
- The characters went by so many different names I couldn’t keep them all straight. (Even the damn madhouse went by multiple names!) I eventually got the three POV characters straight, but the only side character I kept steady was Parrish—and that took 2/3 of the book to do it.
- Speaking of Parrish, most of his characterization sets him up as a rapist who bullies people into not talking about it. Then he does an about face and settles into a blissful relationship with Ned. It felt like two different characters got combined, and didn’t get properly smoothed into one.
- I literally rolled my eyes every time Coby entered the scene from the moment she started crushing on Mal. In fact, I still roll my eyes just thinking about it.
- Part of that problem came from the queer-baiting that chapter 2 opened with. I was so happy when chapter 2 opened, and Mal was implied to be gay. I thought, finally! Finally, we have a story with a queer protagonist! Finally we have an author with the guts to write it, and a publisher with the guts to publish it!
But no, we don’t. Both Ned and Mal make it quite clear over the course of the novel that Mal “isn’t like that.” Mal could have been set up as gay, or even bi—it wouldn’t have even been strange in this setting or cast! But no. People like me still don’t count enough to be protagonists.
- When it came right down to it, I didn’t terribly like any of the characters. Oh, they were interesting enough to follow, and I’m curious enough about how it continues to pick up the sequel. Coby wasn’t interesting—we’ve seen the girl-hiding-as-a-boy thing a million times before. The only interesting thing about Mal was his brother and Ned, not actually himself at all. I liked Ned because he was honest about himself and tried to do the best he could in the situations he had, but he was very clearly just the hanger-on. The story was about Mal and Coby.
So there you go. Even if my complaints are more detailed than what I enjoyed about it, I want to be clear I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I definitely want to pick up the sequel.
ETA: In discussion with a friend of mine who’s reading the sequel, I learned that there Mal is openly bi. Which makes me wonder why they tried so hard to make him straight/ambiguous in the first novel. Was he originally written as bi, and then changed to make it more marketable? My (straight) friend was just as excited as I was when it appeared Mal was bi, and just as disappointed/confused when all the other characters tried insisting he wasn’t.
If they wanted to pander to the homophobic crowd, I don’t think that would have worked anyways. They would have hit chapter 2 and put the book down. Why not just make Mal openly bi in the first book, and encourage that representation? While I am slightly comforted that things improve in book 2, this whole thing still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Recommended: Yes. For fans of historical fantasy and urban fantasy in a non-modern context.