Publisher: Angry Robot Books (March 2012)
Blurb from Angry Robot Books: When Tudor explorers 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 seconded to 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 Catlyn his soul.
I love this book. It's that simple. I ate it up, couldn't put it down, and read until sleep overcame me, leaving Kindle screen prints on my face and a bemused husband to tuck me in. For starters, our main character, Maliverny Catlyn, has one of the most awesome names. Second, I really enjoy the genre of alternate historical fantasy.
The first half of this novel was character and setting building, which I found fascinating. The reader gets a chance to pick up on the fact that this is an alternate England where Queen Elizabeth married, had children, and buried a husband. We also have time to learn bits and pieces about the skraylings. They are a race out of myth, with cool tattoos and some form or alchemical technology that is yet unknown to England. Mal Catlyn is rooming with one of his long-time friends Ned, who in turn has a lover in one of the top theatre companies. The leading 3 theatres are preparing for a contest of plays to impress the skrayling ambassador. During this time in England, only men are allowed to act on stage, including the female rolls. Jacob (Coby) Hendricks is the tireman - he makes sure the props are in good order and is a whiz with a needle, creating and maintaining the numerous costumes. Coby and Mal are thrown together through their mutual contacts and Coby's ability to speak Trade Speech with the skraylings. They each have secrets; the reader is in on Coby's from the beginning - he is really a young woman living as a boy for the past several years since she lost her family while traveling to England. Mal's twisted secrets come into focus bit by bit.
At near the half-way point, Anne Lyle picks up the pace and several threads of the story start to rush together in a head-long adventure. There's at least one plot against the ambassador and somehow Mal's twin brother becomes caught up in it. Walsingham, the Queen's Spider, has put his numerous intelligencers onto keeping the ambassador alive while on English soil. Mal is given little choice about cooperating with Walsingham. Meanwhile, the plotters have gotten to Ned, who lives with his little ancient mum. In threatening her life, Ned is coerced into telling them nearly everything he knows about his buddy Mal and then assisting them with part of their plot. I was biting my knuckles wondering if Ned would rally and be able to assist, rather than harm, his friends. Meanwhile, Ned is also terrified his lover Gabriel will be harmed, perhaps through exposure of their illicit relationship.
While all this is going on, Mal is thrown into a nightmare - working closely with the skraylings. An event from when he was a young man has his skin crawling just being near a skrayling. Now he must serve one as a bodyguard, 24/7, including sleeping in the same chamber. I love the tension this added to the story, and also the personal growth we see in our hero by the end of the book.
Pluses: Lush, historical setting; depth in character; Mal is a jaded and complex character; Coby is practical and easy to connect with; half the time I wanted to despise Ned and the other half I wanted to give him a helping hand; the skraylings are complex; this is the first in a SERIES!
Minuses: There's really only 1 female character, Coby.