Monstrously Entertaining: A Review of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017)
Written by: Theodora Goss
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 416 (Kindle)
Publisher: Saga Press

Why I Chose It: The premise was appealing. A mash-up of pulp fiction’s literary monsters and their daughters? Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Justine Frankenstein, and Catherine Moreau? Solving crime alongside Sherlock Holmes? Yeah, sign me up. That it was Theodora Goss just made it easier. Her writing is always lovely, and that confidence made me willing to buy the book straight off rather than check it out from the library. (I’m really trying to confine my book purchases these days to books where I expect enjoyment).

The Premise:

Based on some of literature’s horror and science fiction classics, this is the story of a remarkable group of women who come together to solve the mystery of a series of gruesome murders — and the bigger mystery of their own origins.

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

Some small spoilers below.


Discussion: I read a sample chapter of this on Tor.com, and I’m really glad I did. This is a book that has a very distinct narrative style that could be make or break for a reader: Catherine, the “writer,” is telling the story of how they all got together and solved a series of brutal murders in London. But the trick is she’s writing her account with a slew of characters nagging at her that she’s telling it wrong, or that they don’t remember it happening that way, or criticizing her writing style, or a dozen other small complaints/comments. And Catherine records those as well, so the narrative is constantly being interrupted.

Forewarned by the sample, I went ahead and purchased the book. But someone looking for a straight-through narrative might bounce off of this book. Even when the narrative is moving ahead without too much commentary, it sidetracks to tell you each woman’s story of how they came to be where they are now. Mostly, I found that delightful. Goss was always quick to draw me back to the present troubles, so they didn’t feel like distractions. Mostly. I thought Justine’s history, the last of the women to “speak,” came at an awkward point between climax and denouement, and it kind of dragged as a result, despite how much I liked Justine.

Since this book is so recent, I don’t want to give away the plot any more than the blurb already does. Mary and a growing team of unusual women (and a couple of unusual men) fight the forces of an enigmatic Society of Alchemists. It’s a very straight-forward plot; there are few twists or turns, but that’s just fine because the characters are so likeable. Plus, who doesn’t like a plot that uncovers the misdeeds of murderous and mad Alchemists? There are a few threads left dangling, which makes me hope there will be more stories forthcoming from Goss about this world.

Some of the things I particularly liked: the competence of all the characters doing the best they could in the situations they found themselves in. I liked that Goss didn’t have Holmes adversarial to this bunch of peculiar women; this wasn’t a hostile competition between a Victorian misogynist detective and smart women determined to prove him wrong. Instead, there’s rationality on all sides, and they save their enmity for those who deserve it. The women themselves run the gamut — from sensible Mary to wild Diana to faith-driven Justine and so forth. And I loved that two “regular” women felt essential to the book as well.

There’s a great sense of anything-goes about this book because of the mash-up of mad scientists. Besides the characters mentioned above, this book flirts with other pulp literary creations which kept me amused and wondering what else could be brought into this world. As an example, Mary’s one-time tutor is a woman named Mina Murray….

The downsides to this book are a side-effect of the style. Because the storyline is constantly interrupted by Catherine’s would-be beta readers, it’s hard to get deeply engrossed in the mystery and peril aspect. After all, we’re constantly reminded by the book-writing that they all survived these dangers, and we often get dragged away from the dramatic moments for the women to say, “You know, I don’t believe I felt that,” or “Oh yes, that was a terrible moment,” or “Now, Cat, that’s melodramatic!” (Paraphrased, not real quotes).

On the other hand, I found these asides fun and amusing. So I think your mileage may definitely vary. If you want an entertaining story that keeps you reading and amused, with a few pithy comments about the state of womanhood in Victorian England, you’ll find that here. If you want a deeply engrossing, high-stakes, grip the edge of your seat, total immersion effect? Not so much.

In Conclusion: Ultimately, I’m glad I purchased the book and I’ll undoubtedly pick up the next one. Especially since they leave off plotting how to rescue another woman at the mercy of the Society. According to the afterword, the genesis of this book began as an offshoot of her doctoral dissertation with a question she asked herself: “Why did so many of the mad scientists in the nineteenth century narratives create, or start creating, but then destroy female monsters?” An interesting question that leads to an entertaining book.

4 Comments

  • Shara White July 6, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    I can’t help but think of Penny Dreadful when I read this review, which makes me want to read this book even more. Oh, my poor, poor TBR pile….

    Reply
    • Lane Robins July 6, 2017 at 6:34 pm

      You will be glad to know that I have in fact now watched the first three episodes of Penny Dreadful. My first impression? Vanessa is awesome. Everyone else can go away. 🙂

      Reply
  • davidbrawley July 6, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    That sounds really interesting I’ll have to snag the sample and see how I like it.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins July 6, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      I thought it was really interesting, and it’s definitely a book that takes a writer who’s also a stylist to carry it off successfully. Style aside, it was just a fun caper.

      Reply

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