Book Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Saga Press (June 20, 2017)
Length: 416 pages
“That was the first meeting of the Athena Club. … Readers who remember their classical mythology will immediately realize its significance: Athena, born from the head of her father, Zeus. We do not claim the wisdom of Athena, but we identify with her dubious parentage.”
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter may be the latest in a long line of mashups based off of some of literature’s most famous horror and sci-fi classics, but it possesses a charm you don’t find in a lot of retellings today. The awesome quote above is one of my favorites from the book—which I just had to use to begin my review, because it manages to capture the essence of this book so perfectly, as well as the strength and spirit of the women in it.
As the story begins, we are introduced to Mary Jekyll who is in mourning for her mother, dead after years of suffering from a debilitating madness. Left with nothing to her name, Mary has no choice but to sort through some of her family’s old accounts, only to find that for years her mother had been sending money to a halfway house for “fallen women”. Following this trail, our protagonist is led to Diana Hyde, daughter of Edward Hyde, the man Mary only knows as her father’s former employee—and murderer. Mr. Hyde has been wanted for his crimes for years, and with this new development, Mary has hopes that helping the authorities capture him would mean the end of her financial troubles once she collects the reward.
It is while following up on the case that Mary ends up meeting with the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr. Watson. As it so happens, the two men are also currently helping Scotland Yard investigate a string of gruesome murders in Whitechapel. Some of the victims, all street women, were brutally dismembered and one even had her brain removed. Could these murders be related to the Edward Hyde? Further digging leads Mary and Diana to find and befriend more women, all of whom have been created through experimentation by a shadowy group known as the Société des Alchimistes: Beatrice Rappaccini, raised by her father to tend to a garden of poisonous plants until she herself became poisonous to others; Catherine Moreau, a beast woman brought to life by her creator’s human-animal hybridization experiments; and last but not least, Justine Frankenstein, reanimated from the corpse of a dead girl by Dr. Frankenstein to be a female companion to his monster.
One part creative re-imagining and one part loving homage, my favorite aspect of this book is most definitely its premise, or the idea of getting the “daughters” of some of gothic literature’s most famous characters together to solve a mystery. Goss gives all the women personalities that let them stand out as unique individuals, like sensible Mary Jekyll who is the de facto leader of the group, Justine whose great physical strength and stature belies her gentle soul, or Catherine whose irreverence and independence reflects the fact she used to be a puma. My absolute favorite, however, was probably Diana—the lovable hellion who just does and says whatever she pleases, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Poole the housekeeper. Then there are of course the nods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and even some to Dracula by Bram Stoker. Indeed, if you are a fan of any of the referenced classics, you should have a lot of fun with this novel. It was also very clever how the story even incorporated Jack the Ripper; even though it was done in a very oblique and subtle way, the location and details behind the murders are clearly meant to make you think in that direction.
The structure and format of this tale is also interesting. The book, as we find out early on, is an account of events as told by Catherine Moreau, who among other things is an aspiring writer. For better or worse, she has also allowed her companions to chime in in reaction to everything going on in her manuscript, meaning we frequently get interruptions in the narrative ranging from humorous remarks made by the characters objecting to the way they are being portrayed, to snarky comments about the quality of Catherine’s writing. While this is all done in good fun, I admit that sometimes these asides can get a little excessive and distracting, and it took me a while to get used to them. Granted though, I can still say these are vastly preferable to pesky footnotes.
In terms of pacing, my only complaint was the drawn out conclusion. Goss had it so that each of the women were able to tell their individual stories, and for the most part, these were spread out nicely throughout the book and came in at appropriate times. The only exception was Justine. Her backstory was left until the end after the plot’s climax, piggybacked onto the denouement which I thought was a little awkward. The wrap-up section explaining the formation of the Athena Club could have been shortened too, along with the setup for their next adventure—but I’m not going to grumble too hard on this point. After all, it is foreshadowing that bodes well for the possibility of a sequel, and it’s safe to say I wouldn’t mind seeing more from this world and its characters.
A delightfully vibrant fusion of mystery and adventure, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter will make you think about your favorite literary classics in a whole new light. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and will be looking forward to more by Theodora Goss.