Hic Mulier and Haer Vir, two pamphlets published in 1620, debate the fad of transvestism in Renaissance London. Anne Lyle, in her alternate-historical fantasy, The Alchemist of Souls (Angry Robot Books 2012), set in Shakespearean London, adopts the debate of that age; and, through our modern prism ( a form of anachronism; cf with my review of Harry Sidebottom's Fire in the East and my discussion of the "modernity of anachronism") takes a broader view (at least for some of us) of gender roles, as she engages thematically with cross-dressing, sexuality, otherness, and desire. In other words, by employing transvestism as a major plot point within the structure of her sword and sorcery romance, she elevates her fantasy and addresses directly, through an explicit use of early 17th Century mores and the dramatic tropes of Shakespearean comedy, the issues of race, gender, sexuality, and otherness.
Transvestism, although an important trope and plot point, is not the only Shakespearean device she chooses to include in this very entertaining first novel of her new series; she also casts a set of twins, a homosexual scrivener, a young male actor, New World monsters (read Calibans), magicians, alchemists, spies, and a group of blood-thirsty villains and conspirators, more appropriate for a Kit Marlowe revenge play, than a Shakespearean comedy, within the boundaries of the 17th century politics of Europe. Ultimately, The Alchemist of Souls is more than a revenge play, a Shakespearean comedy, or an alternate history; it is a sword and sorcery fantasy reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's brilliant short-stories of the sixties, with a definite nod toward the more mature, theme-based novels of "otherness," written by C. J. Cherryh, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Lynn Flewelling. Explicit same-sex romance, quite common in Elizabethan London, is employed for both dramatic effect and modern-day gender and sexual exploration, while a race of Calibans, the Skraylings, become the object of fear, loathing, prejudice, and scapegoats.
The Alchemist of Souls, frankly, is a book of ideas; just as Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Lynn Flewelling's Luck in the Shadows, and C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner are theme-based novels. In my mind, The Alchemist of Souls is a bit like the proverbial onion: the first level, the outer skin, is a historical novel set in a very realistic Elizabethan London, with a number of sword and sorcery types and characters from Shakespeare's comedies--swordsman, Maliverny Catlyn, his somewhat idiotic sidekick, Ned Faulkner (like all good companions he is an 'other' like Huck's Joe or Ishmael's Queequeg), and, a woman, Coby, masquerading as a lower-class boy, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night, and Rosalind in As You Like It; the second level is the novel of ideas, focusing on the theme of the outsider or the other and the implicit prejudice and violence directed toward them, as illustrated by the Caliban-like aliens from Vineland, the homosexual Ned and his lovers, and the mentally-ill twin, Sandy; and the third level is that of alternate-history fantasy, which blends the first two levels and mixes them to create a concoction of wonders, dependent on the answers to a series of speculations--what if the Conquistadors failed? What if an alien race of magicians existed on Thule (Greenland)? What if Elizabeth had married Dudley and birthed sons?
No matter the intelligence of the work, the ultimate question is whether the book is entertaining, and the answer for me is a resounding "yes."
In a lot of ways there is a distinct similarity to Dan Abnett's Triumff (Angry Robot Books 2010): the locale and the concomitant verve of the Elizabethan age, the swashbuckling plot and the fantasy tropes. However, where Abnett mines the humor of the age, Lyle seems to channel the history and the politics. Both novels left me with the desire to know more about their alternate worlds.
I am looking forward to the further adventures of Mal, Coby, and Ned. Hopefully, they will travel to France and deal with one of my favorite historical characters: Henri de Bourbon aka Henri IV.