The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence

The Alchemist of Lost Souls is the fourth book in a series of historical mysteries set in Tudor England and featuring the character of Bianca Goddard, an alchemist’s daughter. Not having read any of the previous novels, I wondered whether I would be at a disadvantage in starting with this one, but that wasn’t really a problem. Although it would have been nice to have been more familiar with the backgrounds of the characters and to have followed them from the beginning, this novel works as a standalone mystery and it was easy enough to understand what was happening without any prior knowledge.

The story takes place in London in the spring of 1544 and opens with Bianca’s father, the alchemist Albern Goddard, discovering a new element – a stone which gives off a brilliant light and which has properties that are both powerful and dangerous. Before he has time to explore the potential of this new substance, it is stolen from him and the suspected thief is found dead in a street near the Dim Dragon Inn with a glowing green vapour rising from her mouth. Albern asks for his daughter’s help and soon Bianca is investigating both the theft and the murder, as well as looking for any trace that may remain of her father’s precious element.

This is an entertaining mystery and a more complex one than it appeared to be at first, with a range of suspects including alchemists, apothecaries, chandlers – and even Bianca’s mother, Malva Goddard. I didn’t manage to guess the solution correctly, but I was happy just to watch Bianca try to unravel it all. Bianca is a very likeable character; she is intelligent and independent, but her behaviour is usually believable enough in the context of being a sixteenth century woman. Like her father, she is interested in science, but her gender means she cannot be an alchemist so instead she works as a herbalist, making remedies for common ailments in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’.

Bianca’s relationship with her husband, John, is one area where I felt I may have missed out by not reading the previous books in the series. In this book he, like the other men from Southwark, has been called up to fight in Henry VIII’s army (as a pikeman after failing to impress with his archery skills) and faces being sent away from home to deal with the threats from Scotland and France. With Bianca pregnant with their first child, a separation at this time is obviously going to be particularly difficult for them both, but I think I would have found their storyline more emotional if I had known both characters better and had seen how their relationship developed.

Apart from Henry VIII’s military endeavours, which are kept mainly in the background of the novel, the story concentrates very much on fictional characters and fictional events, but I could see that Mary Lawrence was making an effort to capture the atmosphere of Tudor England and the details of how people may have lived and worked at that time. The focus is on ordinary, working class Londoners rather than the royalty and nobility, which gives the story a gritty feel and a sense of reality, despite the more fantastical elements of the plot (not just the alchemy but also the mysterious character of the Rat Man, whose role I’m not sure I fully understood). I also appreciated the author’s attempts to use vocabulary appropriate to the period and although some of the slang didn’t feel quite right to me, it did add colour to the writing and there is a glossary at the back of the book if you need to look up any unfamiliar words.

It was nice to meet Bianca Goddard and now I’m wondering if there will be more books in the series.

Thanks to Mary Lawrence and Kensington Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas

The Red Lily Crown Nearly two years ago I read The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas, a fascinating novel set in Renaissance Italy which told the story of Barbara of Austria, the second wife of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. In The Red Lily Crown we revisit the same time period, but this time we are in Florence, where Barbara’s sister, Giovanna of Austria, is married to Francesco de’ Medici, a member of the ruling Florentine family. The novel opens in 1574 when Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici is about to die and his son Francesco is preparing to inherit the red lily crown of Tuscany.

Fifteen-year-old Chiara Nerini is the orphaned daughter of a bookseller and alchemist. Desperate for money to support her grandmother and little sisters, Chiara attempts to sell some of her father’s old equipment to Francesco, who is also known to have an obsession with alchemy. However, Chiara gets more than she bargained for when she finds herself being initiated as Francesco’s soror mystica, the female partner believed to be necessary for the creation of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Her new role brings her into the heart of the Medici household where she witnesses first-hand the corruption, intrigue and danger of Francesco’s court.

I loved The Red Lily Crown. I wasn’t sure about it at first, because books about alchemy tend not to appeal to me, but actually the alchemy was only one part of the story. What I found much more interesting was the wonderful portrayal of the Medici court and the people Chiara meets during her time there. Francesco de’ Medici himself is the perfect villain: coldly intellectual, clever and calculating, and with a terrifying knowledge of poisons. His only weakness appears to be his love for his Venetian mistress, Bianca Cappello – although their relationship is not a healthy one. Bianca is as scheming and ruthless as Francesco himself but she is also another victim of his cruelty and can only truly please him when pretending to be something she is not.

Chiara does make some friends too and becomes close to Francesco’s poor wife, the Grand Duchess Giovanna, who has been unable to provide her husband with the healthy male heir he so badly wants. There’s also the possibility of romance for Chiara with a mysterious English alchemist known as Ruanno, but knowing little about him and his previous life in Cornwall, she must decide whether or not he can be trusted. As for Chiara herself, I found that, as with Barbara in The Second Duchess, our heroine is both a strong woman and one whose actions and attitudes are believable in the context of the time period.

All of these characters have their role to play in a fast-moving plot packed with murder, magic, power struggles and poisonings. The setting is a great one too. The Medici palaces, the Nerini bookshop and the streets and squares of sixteenth century Florence are all vividly described – and there are some particularly memorable scenes set in the Grand Duke’s labyrinth in the Boboli Gardens. Not everything that happens in the story is entirely accurate, but Elizabeth Loupas explains in her author’s note what is true and what is fictional. Of course, there is a lot that we still don’t know for sure about the Medici, which leaves plenty of scope for an author to use his or her imagination.

I think I liked The Second Duchess slightly more than this one, but both books I’ve read by Loupas are excellent. I need to get hold of a copy of her other novel, The Flower Reader, as soon as I can!

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of magic and alchemy, murder and blackmail, set in the early thirteenth century. Earlier this year I read my first Karen Maitland novel, The Vanishing Witch, and loved the combination of history, mystery and the supernatural. This book includes the same elements but the supernatural one is particularly strong, making this a darker and more atmospheric read.

The Ravens Head The story revolves around three young people who are drawn into an alchemist’s search for power. Beginning in France in 1224, we meet seventeen-year-old Vincent, apprentice to a scribe in the service of Philippe, the Comte de Lingones. Bored with life in Philippe’s chateau, Vincent tries to blackmail the Comte, but when his attempt fails he finds himself on the run in possession of a silver raven’s head which seems to have a mind of its own.

In England, meanwhile, a young woman called Gisa is working as an assistant to her uncle, an apothecary, when she comes to the attention of the sinister Lord Sylvain who enlists her help with his secret experiments. Nearby, a group of white-robed priests known as the White Canons are running a small and exclusive school for young boys. One of these boys is five-year-old Wilky, taken from his parents as payment of a debt, and renamed Regulus. When Wilky’s friends start disappearing from their beds in the middle of the night never to return, the boys begin to wonder what is really going on.

I loved the first half of this book and was intrigued by the circumstances of each of our three main characters. I found Vincent’s story particularly gripping, possibly because his chapters were narrated in the first person and this made it easier for me to connect with him. The other two storylines were written in third person present tense and although I’m not really sure why this was necessary, it did help to distinguish Gisa’s and Wilky’s sections from Vincent’s. I was curious to see how the story would develop for each character and how their separate threads of the novel would eventually be woven together.

The book failed to hold my interest right to the end, unfortunately. Somewhere in the second half, I thought the plot started to lose its way and descend into a string of action sequences, alchemical experiments and gruesome secret rituals. I’m sure other readers will enjoy all of this more than I did; I do like historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural, but I prefer it to be more subtle than it is here. After so much build-up and so much care taken in setting the scene and introducing the characters, I was left slightly disappointed at the end.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric and eerie novel, though. The parts of the story told from Wilky’s perspective are particularly effective in that respect – seen through the eyes of a little boy who has no idea what is happening, the world of the White Canons is both bewildering and terrifying. The Gisa and Vincent storylines also have undercurrents of darkness and danger – and Lord Sylvain is a great villain!

Having now read Karen Maitland’s two most recent novels I’m looking forward to going back and reading her earlier ones.

I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley.