The first volume in Night’s Masque, Anne Lyle’s trilogy of fantasy novels, set in an alternate 16th Century Europe, has just been published by Angry Robot (and is reviewed here). Lyle clearly enjoys stepping back in time in her fiction – perhaps because her real-life job is at the cutting edge of technology as a web designer. While busying herself with the various festivities connected to the launch of her debut novel, she explained some of the background to The Alchemist of Souls…
Let’s start from the basics – why an alternate Elizabethan England? What was the attraction of the time period?
It was a number of reasons, but principally that I love the early modern period. I associate it with all the swashbuckling movies I watched as a kid, and I also felt it would make a change from the more usual medieval setting that dominates fantasy.
I was originally going to write a secondary world fantasy with an Elizabethan flavour, but when I ran the first few chapters past my writing group they said it would be much cooler set in the real Elizabethan London – and I think they were right!
Are there specific reasons for all the changes that have happened to the timeline? Or are some simply “because”?
There aren’t any solid “alternate history” reasons for the changes in English history, at least not in the sense of being caused by the existence of the skraylings. I toyed with changing the history of the Tudor dynasty early in the 16th Century (e.g. having a skrayling physician save the life of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s baby son), but Elizabeth is so iconic a figure, and so closely associated with the era that bears her name, that it didn’t feel right having someone else on the throne.
However I wanted to take the edge off the religious conflicts that dogged Elizabeth’s reign so that I could focus on the fragile alliance with the skraylings. I therefore decided that Elizabeth would marry and had children, thus stabilising the political situation at home. Other changes to history result from that; for example Walsingham (left) is still alive in 1593, having had a rather less stressful career in government.
When you were researching, did you concentrate on the political or the social history of the time?
Mostly the social history, as I find that understanding the culture of a period is key to writing believable characters. Also, I’d already studied the politics of the era at school and seen it portrayed in numerous movies and TV documentaries, so it was more a matter of brushing up on details than major research.
Which came first – the characters of Mal and Coby, or the story into which they fit?
I don’t see a clear dividing line between plot and character – I create them both together. For The Alchemist of Souls, my initial inspiration was to write about a visiting skrayling ambassador and the Englishman assigned to be his bodyguard, because I like writing about culture clashes. It was then a matter of coming up with both plot reasons and character reasons why these two people might come into conflict, and it all mushroomed from there.
We only really get a taste of the skrayling culture in this first novel – how much of it did you map out before you started work on the book?
I didn’t go into a huge amount of detail – I have no maps or list of skrayling cities, or all those other things that keen worldbuilders love to produce! Instead I focused on the biology of the skraylings and how that makes their culture very different from ours. The only part of the worldbuilding I spent way too much time on was the languages – I love conlanging, and it took me a long time to come up with something that I found both aesthetically pleasing and interesting, but that wasn’t so arcane as to be unpronounceable by readers.
The necessity to hide love seems to be one of the themes of the book – whether it’s the gay lovers, or the more fundamental link between the ambassador and some of the other characters (Spoilers!): how much were you influenced by the way that dramatists of the period handled this theme?
Hmm, I hadn’t even thought of that angle – it must be entirely unconscious. I have to admit that Twelfth Night is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, so in that respect he is a huge influence.
Were you surprised at the reaction to the way you portrayed the gay characters in the book?
Not really – many readers tend to assume that people in the past were just like us, only with funny clothes and accents. In some ways, of course, they were just like us, but attitudes towards gender and sexuality are very much a social construct, apt to change wildly over the generations.
I hasten to add that the reaction hasn’t been negative at all, merely surprise on the part of some readers that some of my characters are openly gay, or at least not heavily closeted and guilt-stricken. I covered this in detail in a recent blog post, since I felt it needed explanation that I couldn’t fit into the novel without it being an awkward infodump.
Which of the characters was the most challenging to write?
I think Coby was the hardest to pin down, at least to begin with, as finding a role for a female character in a male-dominated culture was tricky. I tried writing her as a young widow, but it was too implausible to have her hanging out in the seedier parts of London and being treated as an equal by the male characters, so I had to come up with a scenario whereby she would be forced to disguise herself as a boy from a young age. This was all worked out long before I read A Game of Thrones, but the parallels with Arya struck me when I watched the TV series!
The action sequences have a very authentic feel to them – do you partake in such sports?
Hah, no, I’m a very unathletic person and hated sports at school! I watch a lot of movies, read books about authentic Renaissance fencing techniques and exercise my imagination :)
The second book, The Merchant of Dreams, is currently in first draft and awaiting feedback from my editor before undergoing a thorough revision. A large part of the book is set in Venice, one of my favourite cities, and features plenty more swashbuckling, intrigue, and romance.
I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, but the characters – especially Mal – grew so much during the multiple rewrites that it soon became clear that it would need at least one more book. I rough-drafted a sequel (which eventually morphed into The Merchant of Dreams) before The Alchemist of Souls was finished, and the two books formed the original proposal to Angry Robot.
When the opportunity arose to turn that into a three-book deal, I jumped at the chance, though with little idea of what would happen in the third and final volume. I submitted a synopsis to Angry Robot last November and am currently outlining it, so I now have a good idea of how it’s all going to end.