The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter
by Theodora Goss
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'm not sure if this should be considered a pastiche or an homage, or maybe just an alternative fictional history. It's possible some might compare it to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I have neither read that comic series nor seen the movie version. Besides, The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter could just as easily be subtitled The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen (or not so gentle, as the case may be). Imagine if you will a world in which many different literary figures are not only contemporaneous with each other, they are either working together toward a common goal, or are working against each other in pursuit of individual goals. There are elements that should appeal to a wide range of readers. Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan? This has that covered. Have you read, or are at least familiar with, the stories of Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Van Helsing, and other tales of the macabre? If you are, and you like that type of story, this will certainly please you. Are you a woman, or a man who likes to see strong female characters assert themselves against the prevailing culture of their day? All of the above are featured in this debut novel, which I am hoping is just the beginning of a continuing series. Some parts of the mysteries are solved, but some culprits escape, a few characters I expected to appear haven't yet, and several questions remain unanswered.
I received a free e-book of this title from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. The release date is in one week, June 20, 2017. I highly recommend it. I've given it 5 stars on both Goodreads and NetGalley, and will do the same on Amazon shortly. That does not mean it's perfect, just that 4 stars doesn't do it justice, and fractions aren't allowed. If the scale was 1-10, this warrants at least a 9. By the end of the book, I wasn't sure to which character the title referred, since there are many candidates. Probably the first we encounter, Mary Jekyll, daughter of Dr. Henry Jekyll. A lot of the action takes place in and around her London home and her father's abandoned laboratory. Mary is twenty-one, her mother has recently died, fourteen years after Dr. Jekyll committed suicide, or so they thought. Mary learns of some notebooks of her father's that her mother had kept in a safe deposit box. It brings up memories from her childhood, of the strange Mr. Hyde she once saw lurking about the house, the mystery of her father's death and what had happened to his fortune. She decides to present her questions to the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, and in so doing is propelled into a much deeper and dangerous mystery. In addition to Mary's inquiry, Holmes has also been retained to investigate the disappearance or theft of animals from a rich man's menagerie, as well as being invited to consult with Scotland Yard's Inspector Lestrade on several gruesome murders in Whitechapel. Little do they know that all of these, plus later weird events, will all tie into one over-arching mystery. As I mentioned above, this is an alternate history, and even though the murders are eerily similar to those attributed to Jack the Ripper, they are occuring about ten years later than those historic crimes, and there is no reference to Jack.
Early on we also learn there will be bits of humor thrown into the mix, primarly things said or done by (or things said or done in reaction to) Diana, fourteen years old, who claims to be the daughter of Edward Hyde, and thus Mary's half-sister. Even at the end, Mary is reluctant to acknowledge her connection to Hyde, but still takes Diana under her wing, if only to honor her mother who had been contributing to Diana's upkeep all of those years. The story is ostensibly being written after the fact by one person, although comments from Mary and others are interjected at various points. Some of those interjections reveal details of events yet to be fully explained by the end of the book, so maybe we'll read of those adventures later. The writer? Catherine Moreau, a woman created from a South American puma by Dr. Moreau on his South Seas island (from H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau"). In addition to her recounting Mary's story, as well as her own, we also meet several other women who could conceivably be the subject of the novel's title; Beatrice Rappaccini, daughter of an Italian botanist, whose story we also know from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter"; Justine, a giantess, hanged for a murder she did not commit, later reanimated by Victor Frankenstein to be the bride of his original creation. Others are mentioned in passing, but otherwise are not part of the narrative yet. Those include Mina Murray, previously a governess to Mary, who at the end of the book sends her a letter concerning a friend, Lucinda Van Helsing. If they feature in a later adventure, Mina may or may not end up marrying Jonathan Harker, and Lucinda seems to be an alternate character, Abraham Van Helsing's daughter rather than the fiancée of Arthur Holmwood, although she might still end up as a victim of Dracula. All of these women are either the children of, or scientific creations of, men who are connected to the Société des Alchimistes, or at least had been trying to get the society's approval for their experiments.
My comments might seem to imply this is a frivolous story, but there are serious elements. Most echo the themes of the earlier stories; man's search for knowledge which exceeds his ability to contain his mistakes, as well as the arrogance and hubris necessary to attempt such feats of creation in the first place. Add to that a feminist theme, of how women are controlled and confined by the strictures of society, but also how they might assert themselves and gain recognition as equal partners in society. Mary goes from a pampered and sheltered young woman to one who knows she has much to contribute if only given the chance. She'd probably be the last to admit it, but she might eventually acknowledge that the brashness of Diana has a lot to do with her growth. It's also refreshing that Holmes is depicted as more sensitive to her plight than we're used to seeing. In the end, Mary opens her home to those she acknowledges as her new family, and they all pool their resources for the common good. Catherine has written several other stories that have sold, Justine is a successful artist, and Beatrice concocts medicines based on her father's earlier work. Mary's contribution is a salary received from Holmes. Due to a serious injury that befalls Dr. Watson, Holmes has recruited Mary as an assistant, and hopefully that will continue in subsequent books. Yes, this is a quick and enjoyable read, but it also deals with serious issues, as all good literature does. One of the best I've read this year. Don't miss it.
I look forward to more work from Theodora Goss, and not just in this series. I've only read one other of her stories, but I liked it a lot. It didn't make the final Hugo ballot this year, but I nominated "Red as Blood and White as Bone" for best novelette. It's still free to read at tor.com. It's another story that takes familiar tropes, then twists them into a very refreshing narrative.
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