The Alchemist of Souls
by Anne Lyle
I like me a bit of historical fantasy and was pleased to discover that this one is well-written and very entertaining. Elizabethan London is a popular setting, and here it felt authentic but also original as the author has taken a few (obvious and intentional) liberties with history. This is not a secret history with the supernatural pulling the strings behind the scenes (not that I have any problem with such stories, as you can tell from my attitude to the work of Tim Powers). In this book the New World proved to be home not just to other races of human but to a non-human, intelligent species called Skraylings. In post-Reformation England there are mixed attitudes to the Skraylings, their magical wares and mysterious ways. There are those who think them demons or fairies, while others see them as powerful and useful allies. Thrown into the middle of all this is our Hero Mal Catlyn, an impoverished gentleman who is appointed bodyguard to the Skrayling Ambassador.
It's the characters that really make this book such a joy to read. They're all rounded and fun to read about, each with their own perspective and voice, but I don;t want to give too much away. The relationships between them -both good and bad- feel genuine. Much of the action is set around a theatre company preparing for a competition, and it is in this environment that the characters are freer to pursue their desires than they would be in other parts of late-Tudor society.
The plot is well paced, with danger thrown at Mal and his friends fairly regularly as mysteries crop up and secrets are gradually revealed. There isn't a particular character who acts as an investigator, different things happen to each character, given the audience a wider (but still intriguing) picture of what's really going on. Conspiracies abound and at times it's hard to see how it'll all come together, though it does. Though a few are recruited to spy for different people, none of the main characters are naturals at intelligence work, often they seem to be people who've somehow gotten themselves in over their heads.
The Skraylings are interesting and not quite like anything I've read before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The reader discovers more about them throughout the book, but there are still many questions at the end.
by China Mieville
This is a British urban fantasy and as such it has a lot of the hallmarks of the subgenre. An ignorant, mundane person is pulled into the shadowy hidden world of the supernatural that exists under/around/between the normal reality of London. There's a dangerous landscape of weird magic, warring gangs and factions, a knowledgeable guide/companion character and truly horrible killers. Having said that, these comparisons have only come to me now that I've stopped reading, at the time I was engrossed enough in the book that it didn't even occur to me to play Magic London Bingo (though one could get a pretty decent score).
There's an apocalyptic feel to this book, as different groups try to stave off or cause the/an apocalypse. The book is full of the feeling and discussion of end-times and the characters struggle against this even as it's clear that they (and the reader) don't really understand why or how the inevitability of the end of the world has come about. This is a book full of twists as the characters think they've discovered what it's all about, only to find that actually it's about something else entirely. This happens several times, some make more sense than others. Similarly character motivations seem to keep changing as veils of deceit are removed. Lines of enquiry are followed by officials, individuals and gangs, each has it's own logic (in a world governed by the power of metaphor) and the plot has been carefully put together to produce something very intricate. By the time you get to the last reveal the book has almost finished and you're surprised there's room for another one.
I enjoyed reading this book. I liked a lot of the ideas, which are very weird as one would expect from the author. The juxtaposition between the weird and the mundane really enhances the oddness of the supernatural world, though I'm sure it could have been odder. To me it felt weirder than the alien world of Embassytown, but didn't seem as strange as Perdido Street Station, though the latter contained a lot more focus on non-human characters. There were some great ideas and bizarre visuals mentioned and touched upon, at times in an offhanded way. The world was explored to an extent, but too much exploration would have become tangential, though it's clear that the author had a lot of interesting ideas.