by Anne Lyle – What a cool concept: an alt history of 16th-century London, one in which humans are not the only intelligent species on earth. Indeed, the British are allied with the skraylings (whose origins are not explained in this novel) against the French and Scottish. The alliance is shaky and there are humans who consider the skraylings to be actual demons who are a threat to their very souls. Some of these humans are intent on killing every skrayling, which means the crown must protect their ambassador and staff. Chosen to act as liaison and bodyguard to the ambassador, Maliverny Catlyn is the son of a deceased noble. He’s also troubled by the skraylings, haunted by boyhood memories or nightmares he doesn’t understand.
Mal’s life is one of near poverty. He lives on small commissions, taking odd jobs found via connections to his family or from his university years. His closest friends are theater folk, including male actors who play women’s parts in a world where women are not allowed on stage. When he is offered (with no chance of refusal) the position of bodyguard to the skrayling ambassador, with its associated task of spying on the entire contingency, his worlds overlap in unexpected ways. Indeed, the skraylings are to judge a theatrical competition, one involving Mal’s friends’ troupe and two others.
Part of the fun of this book is seeing inside the workings of the theater world, via the personnage of Coby, a teenaged female orphan who is pretending to be a boy and working for the theater as a costumer and stagehand. If found out, she is subject to the indignities and dangers of being an unprotected woman in London… and to imprisonment for her completely illegal deceit. I’m a theater junkie, so I am fascinated by the backstage lives and workings of the everyone in that world. That colorful, dramatic, gritty side of London is not just a setting; its denizens become major players in the plot in an unexpected but completely natural way when an attack takes place inside the theater, then Mal is kidnapped, and it is up to Coby to help coordinate a rescue mission and help him keep England’s alliance with the skraylings on sound footing.
There is so much in this book that cannot be synopsized, layers of plot and character that you must (and should) experience for yourself. Lyle has a gift for detail, choosing just the right descriptions to bring this world alive. You can see, hear, smell and even taste 16th-century London with its varying social classes and lifestyles. It’s a full banquet of atmosphere and action and, luckily for us, only the first in a series featuring Mal and Coby. I can’t wait to read the next one (which isn’t out yet, so wait I shall have to do. (finished 4/3/2012)