The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club
by Theodora Goss
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 13, 2017
Edits & Addenda on Nov 11, 2018 and Sept , 2019
Book 1: The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter
Book 2: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman
Book 3: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl
I'm not sure if this should be considered a pastiche or an homage, or perhaps 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 would more appropriately 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 aware of, the stories of Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Abraham 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 who likes to see strong female characters asserting themselves against the prevailing culture of their day, or a man who appreciates the same? All of the above are featured in this debut novel, which I am hoping is just the beginning of a continuing series. [It is. See below.] 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 [and have since purchased it in hardcover]. 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 through vivisection 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, the "Poisonous Girl," 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 they 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, declaring themselves to be members of the Athena Club. 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 so far, but I liked it a lot. It didn't make the final Hugo ballot this year (2017), 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. [EDIT: That story, along with many others, is now featured in a new collection, Snow White Learns Witchcraft.
The first book was awarded a Locus for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for several others. I'm confident European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman will be on the minds of many next year, with its most likely and appropriate nomination being the Tiptree. Gender norms and customs are addressed, and countered, numerous times. Several of the women dress in masculine attire to deceive and/or make it easier for them to infiltrate certain places, with Diana preferring boy's clothes simply out of comfort. Two of the characters (at least) are lesbian. I would recommend you start with the previous book, but it's not essential to appreciate this one. The above review, or any other synopsis, plus the references in the first chapter here should get you up to speed. About three months have passed since the end of the first book. Mary and the "monstrous" women have joined together to form the Athena Club, headquartered in Mary's London home. Mary has continued to assist Sherlock Holmes, even though Dr. Watson has recovered from his injuries suffered in the earlier adventure. However, she is upset that he has not included her in any of the stories he's had published in The Strand. Holmes appears briefly in the beginning, Watson on occasion throughout, but this is rightfully the women's adventure. Holmes goes missing, with even Watson unaware of where or why, and later Watson is also missing. The reveal of that mystery will have to wait for another book. Please, please, please, let there be a third book!
The utilization of multiple literary characters continues, along with a few historical figures, with an appearance by Sigmund Freud, others just mentioned in passing. Familiar characters appear, but in many cases their relationships with others from the same book(s) is different, or they have relationships with characters from another author's work. Some who were protagonists in their original incarnations are depicted as antagonists here. Sticklers for adherence to canon might object to a few things, but since all the literary characters are from public domain titles, alterations are not only allowed, they are to be encouraged. It's no different than what happened in the previously mentioned League comics and movie, or the more recent Penny Dreadful show. Rather than a pastiche or homage, this should be considered a repurposing of those characters, settings, and tropes. Recurring characters include Edward Hyde, Abraham van Helsing, John Seward, and Edward Prendick. Additions include Irene Norton, née Adler, from Doyles' "A Scandal in Bohemia"; Mina Harker, née Murray, from Stoker's Dracula, as well as the Count himself; Ayesha, from H. Rider Haggard's She, along with Leo Vincy and Horace Holly, the British explorers who encountered her in Africa; Carmilla, from the story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, except here she's goddaughter to Count Dracula. The time is 1898, and while there are discussions of political and social changes going on at that time, it is just as relevant to us today, especially concerning how science should be used to benefit mankind, rather than enrich or enpower an elite class. And of course the feminist theme is evident throughout.
The action begins in London, but later moves to the Continent. The monstrous gentlewomen journey to Paris, Vienna, and Budapest, with a detour (read kidnapping) to the southern Austrian state of Styria. Mina Murray/Harker has informed Mary of the disappearance of a girl for whom she had been a paid companion, Lucinda van Helsing. I definitely won't recount all the details, but just say they are successful in rescuing Lucinda from a mental hospital in Vienna, and are on their way to Budapest, hopeful to arrive in time to intervene in a meeting of the Société des Alchimistes, to warn them of the experiments van Helsing and Hyde have been conducting. Ayesha has been President of the society for about fifteen years, her tenure beginning shortly after Hyde and the others in England had been censured and expelled from the group. New revelations about the nature of Jekyll/Hyde's work stuns Mary in particular. Earlier, the Athena Club had decided they were all equal members, there would be no president or leader. Following this adventure, they change their mind, and Mary reluctantly accepts the mantle of group leader. Even though she continually doubts her abilities, she always seems to remain calm and collected under stress, keeping her focus on the mission at hand, with the safety of others foremost in mind. Remember, her father was Dr. Jekyll, while Diana's father was Mr. Hyde. Does it mean that Mary is the best version, or is she missing traits that Diana possesses that would make her a more complete woman? I am sure that dynamic will continue to be explored, and I can't wait to read more about these incredible women. Yes, that even includes Diana.
Another 5 star rating from me. As with the first book, the narrative is being written by Catherine Moreau. I suppose she is reading the manuscript to the others, since there are frequent interruptions, with Mary, Beatrice, or Justine objecting to how they have been described in a particular scene, or it's Diana complaining about how Mary always seems to have a stick up her arse. Catherine makes her own interjections too, frequently cautioning the others not to spoil details of things further along in the book. She also mentions past events, "which can be read in the previous book, available at all fine book shops for just two shillings." Her concern is that if she cannot maintain an adequate income from her stories, she might not be able to write more. I echo that here. Buy these books, enjoy them, talk about them, recommend them to others. I want Ms. Goss and her publishers to know they are appreciated, and that we want more. We have to have more, or how else will we learn the fate of Holmes and Watson, or the fate of the Mesmerizing Girl?
When I wrote the last sentence in the previous part of the review I did not know what the title of the third book would be, or even if there would be a third book, but I felt sure that Alice would be a prominent character if the series continued. The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl will be published in one month, October 1, but I received an ARC from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. I've rated it 4 stars, whereas the previous two got 5 stars each. One element that made the others better is missing. More on that later. It is an enjoyable story, but I can't say it is a totally satisfactory conclusion, if in fact it is a conclusion. I see no reason why Ms. Goss couldn't continue it, even if it's just with shorter stories, in much the same way that Doyle wrote short Sherlock Holmes stories in addition to others that approached novel length. There are certainly enough characters who could appear in separate adventures, it wouldn't have to be the full Athena Club all the time. The final chapter mentions several other cases they had worked on without giving details. I don't want to give too many details about the plot either, just recounting who all is involved should be sufficient.
At the end of this book, the Athena Club is comprised of seven official members, the first five having been introduced in the first book. Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, and Justine Frankenstein have welcomed Lucinda Van Helsing and Lydia Raymond into the fold. The latter we had previously known as Alice, an orphan hired by Mary's housekeeper Mrs. Poole to be a kitchen maid. She would later learn her real name, and the identity of her mother, Helen Raymond, whom had been introduced in the first book as the director of the Society of St. Mary Magdalen, where Mary first met her sister Diana. Alice was the Mesmerizing Girl due to experiments her grandfather had performed on his wife, who had been pregnant with Helen at the time, so the experiment's effects were passed down to both Helen and Lydia. Helen Raymond and her father are characters from Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan. Other new characters introduced include the fictional Egyptian Queen Tera from Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars. Egyptologist Abel Trelawny had discovered Tera's tomb at the Temple of Isis near Memphis, and had brought many of the artifacts, including her sarcophagus, back to England. Actually, it was his daughter Margaret Trelawny who discovered the temple, but her father got the credit, for which she exacted revenge later. Both Helen and Margaret are working with Holmes' nemesis Professor Moriarity, who has formed the Order of the Golden Dawn, utilizing the former headquarters of the discredited British branch of the Alchemical Society. I'm not sure if that is supposed to be connected to the historical secret occult society of that name, which had at least three different branches, perhaps this was a fictionalized fourth branch. Others working with Moriarity are ones we already know, Abraham Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, Quincey Morris, Dr. Jack Seward, Arthur Holmwood (now known as Lord Godalming), and Helen's father, Dr. Raymond (no first name given, not even in the Machen story). Their intention is to resurrect Tera from her mummified state, using Margaret's translation of hieroglyphs as a guide. The seven men will be stand-ins for the seven acolytes that worshipped Tera when she was Priestess in the Temple of Isis. Another character added, in two brief scenes that could develop into more if these stories continue, is Dorian Gray, with his betrayal of Oscar Wilde, still in prison, mentioned. And Queen Victoria makes an appearance to honor the Athena club for saving her life.
One of the best things about these books is how various women of wildly different origins came together and supported each other, even if there were occasional conflicts. There are too many conflicts here. Mary continues to be unsure of herself, with the others now questioning her leadership more than before, touting their own abilities and disparaging those of others. The interjections that interrupt the narrative also continue, with Diana complaining about the way the others treat her and talk about her, but she's not the only one with a legitimate grievance. Even though this is quite a bit shorter than the second book, there is as much plot, as much exciting action, in as many varied locales, but the camaraderie of the women is lacking. Thus the strengths of the feminist message is lacking, not completely, but enough to be noticeable. It's the only thing I can criticize, and it's the reason I hope this is not the last we see of these remarkable, monstrous women. In spite of these negatives, I still highly recommend the series as a whole. Long live the Athena Club!
Oh, one other thing. This series has now been optioned for television. Here's hoping it doesn't get trapped in development hell.
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