I’d had Anne Lyle’s historical fantasy debut on my radar for a while, but when I got to meet her again at Fantasycon this year, I also picked up her book and tucked into it on the journey home…
When a Tudor explorer returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: Skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a Skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital? Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is appointed as the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal his soul.
This debut novel is an intriguing alternative historical fantasy adventure where Elizabeth I has married and produced two princes. The Skraylings – a mysterious and powerful New World race that is proposing an alliance with England at a time when formidable interests are ranged against the country raises the stakes in this involving tale of political manoeuvring and personal ambition. There are three main protagonists whose stories intertwine – Mal, a mercenary fallen on hard times; Ned, a scribe who works in the theatre and Coby, a girl posing as a young man working as a tireman for the famous theatre group the Sussex’s men. Going for three protagonists is always something of a risk – I often find there is one character’s storyline I skim in order to get back to my favourite. It didn’t happen in this case. All three stories held me sufficiently to want to follow each one to the climactic and satisfying conclusion.
What this isn’t, is some rollicking swashbuckler. Lyle’s London is too gritty and full of menace – in her attention to detail, I was at times reminded of C.J. Sansom’s depiction of Tudor London in his successful Matthew Shardlake series. And although this is a fairly hefty read at just over 500 pages, the book zipped along at a fair clip.
The heart of the story – just what exactly the Skraylings represent and how this is going to impact on all three main characters – is a strong story arc with plenty of narrative tension along with the period detail. The only caveat I have is that perhaps Ned would have felt a bit more tormented about the prospect of Hell due to his lifestyle and I wasn’t completely sure that Religion was important enough to all the protagonists at the time when hundreds of people were willing to die and kill for their beliefs. However, this one quibble didn’t prevent me from hugely enjoying this impressive debut and very much looking forward to the sequel.