Published by Angry Robot, The Alchemist of Souls, Merchant of Dreams, and The Prince of Lies are the three books in Anne Lyle’s Night’s Mask Trilogy, set in Elizabethan London with (kind of) aliens. Queen Elizabeth has married, produced heirs and is now widowed. Voyagers to the New World have found a race of non-human skraylings who have a strange kind of magic that humans have barely fathomed. One of these talents is the ability to be reborn. It’s against Skrayling law to be reincarnated as a human, but renegade skraylings exist, known as guisers, and they are dangerous. Skrayling-human politics are finely balanced. The crown appreciates Skrayling trade – even depends on it – while at the same time fearing the strangers. The Skraylings also have their own internal political struggles and factions.
In the first book Mal Catelyn, well-born but now a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune, is hired as bodyguard to the new skrayling ambassador to London, it’s not by accident. He has to overcome his own prejudices, and guilt for what his family once did. He’s on an even steeper learning curve when he also gets hired by Walsingham, the queen’s spymaster. A job he can’t refuse. Mal’s in a tricky position, a secret Catholic, he has to hide his faith, but he has other secrets, too. His twin brother Sandy, incarcerated in Bedlam, is just one of them, but what Mal learns from the Skrayling ambassador turns his world upside down and gives him an even bigger secret to guard.
The second book is a satisfyingly convoluted plot involving French politics, a cross-dressing female, Mal’s brother, Sandy (sometimes Skrayling, sometimes not) and a spying mission to Venice on behalf of Walsingham.
In the third book Mal has been knighted for his efforts and now, at last, has his old home reinstated, his brother returned to sanity, a wife and an adopted son. But there’s a plot afoot. The queen’s grandchild is a guiser, human seeming but with a Skrayling soul and his aim is to take the throne. Mal must stop him, but killing the queen’s grandchild is hardly an option, so in this book Mal fights magic with magic. There’s a satisfactory – if bittersweet – conclusion to the whole trilogy.
I love the setting, the characters and the complexity of this trilogy, and it doesn’t hurt that the covers are gorgeous. Highly recommended.