The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017), Theodora Goss has created something really exciting and rewarding: a novel that pays homage to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works of speculative fiction which inform every standard the modern incarnation of the genre is judged by, and yet stands on its own as a twenty-first century creation.
The epigraph — “Here be monsters” — and a subsequent recorded exchange between Mary and Catherine set the scene: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a collaborative effort, though by whom and for what purpose is not immediately plain. First we are introduced to Mary Jekyll, recently orphaned daughter of Dr. Jekyll and his wife Ernestine, who is reduced to extremely straitened circumstances now that she’s become the head of her household. A strange accounting book among her mother’s effects points Mary to her father’s former assistant, Edward Hyde, a sinister man who went missing some fourteen years ago and whose capture would result in a sizable reward. With the help of two well-known gentlemen operating out of 221B Baker Street, Mary discovers that Hyde left behind a daughter, Diana, a near-feral girl of fourteen.
As it happens, Mary’s mother may have known quite a bit more than she was able to express about her husband’s dealings with the notorious Mr. Hyde, and Mary discovers that a secret society of male alchemists has been at work for a long time in the attempt to transmute human women into … other things. Her keen mind and natural inquisitiveness bring her into contact with Beatrice Rappaccini, a woman whose very breath or touch can kill; the unusually agile Catherine Moreau; and Justine Frankenstein, a giantess with an exquisitely kind soul. All of these women, Mary and Diana included, are tied to the Société des Alchimistes, though the connections and resulting changes are not always immediately clear. Meanwhile, a gruesome series of murders is taking place in Whitechapel, with terrible implications for the safety of people throughout London. Can these unusual women join forces and solve these mysteries before their own lives are put in even more risk?
Literary nods in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter don’t stop at surnames; there are plenty of locations and characters from easily-recognizable works, each of which should please readers who have any background familiarity with the source material. Goss takes the stories of authors like H.G. Wells and Nathaniel Hawthorne and expands upon the seeds of their ideas, asking the reader to consider what life as a surgically “uplifted” animal or a poisonous maiden might actually be like, rather than giving us the perspectives of the men who made or fell in love with such creations.
Additionally, instead of focusing on their victimization, Goss gives each woman her own voice and personality, as well as hobbies and interests. They each bring something vital to the investigation at hand, as well as to the novel as it’s being written, often in hilarious or revealing ways that actively inform the narrative as it’s being shaped. The majority of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter concerns bringing the group together and relaying their histories, though there’s plenty left unsaid about certain characters, leaving questions in my mind about where Goss intends to take these women and what has yet to be revealed.
Goss doesn’t slavishly attempt to re-create a late nineteenth-century novel, thank goodness. Her literary and historical influences are obvious on every page, and she does an excellent job of keeping the writing styles and conventions of the time in mind, but the story and overall tone are pleasingly modern and better suited to what today’s readers will expect. (No long-winded diatribes about the benefits of caste systems, colonialism, or castor oil to be found here.) At the same time, the characters are all fully cemented within the time period, and while there are some interjections about changes that could be made with regard to ladies’ fashion or economic opportunities, they’re appropriate for the societal unrest simmering in 1890s London.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter begins what I hope will be a long and deeply satisfying series of mysteries; if this first installment is any indication, Goss has the writing chops to keep readers interested for as long as she’s got stories to tell about these monstrous ladies and the even more monstrous men who created them. Highly recommended.
I’ve read several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes works in the last few years, as well as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. In my college days (not long after the Victorian age) I also read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Would it be sacrilege to say that I enjoyed this delightful pastiche and tribute to Holmes and other Victorian era fantasy better than most of the originals? What The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter lacks in literary depth, it makes up for in humor and accessibility.
Mary Jekyll, daughter of Dr. Jekyll, who has been gone for many years, is facing a penniless life on her own after her mother’s death. Mary comes across some mysterious papers in her mother’s desk that lead her to believe that Mr. Hyde may still be around (she has no idea he was her father’s alter ego). The reward for Hyde’s capture for his murder of Sir Carew many years ago is very appealing, but Mary’s not certain whether that the reward is still being offered, or who she can trust with her potentially valuable information. So she decides to go to 221B Baker Street, to enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes.
One thing leads to another, and gradually we assemble a very appealing and fascinating cast of characters: Diana Hyde, a wild and irrepressible 14 year old; Beatrice Rappaccini (from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”), with poisonous breath and a burning touch; Catherine Moreau, a woman with disturbingly cat-like qualities; and Justine Frankenstein, an extremely tall and gentle woman who was assembled to be the bride of Frankenstein ― all women who might be considered monsters by society.
These young women, with the help of Sherlock Holmes and some additional characters (it’s nice to see a servant play a substantive role in the plot), work together to solve a series of creepy murders, in which young prostitutes have been found dead with various parts of their bodies missing. To make matters worse, the murders are tied to a secretive society of scientists, the Société des Alchimistes, to which all of these women have a connection as well.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is, on a higher level, faithful to the Victorian era and the works that inspired, but takes some intriguing (and necessary) liberties with the original stories: Mary Shelley deliberately misled her readers when she wrote that Dr. Frankenstein had destroyed his woman creation before giving it life, and Beatrice relates a different ending to “Rappachini’s Daughter.” While these women are generally well-grounded in Victorian times, we see aspects of that society that often don’t appear in literature: Beatrice supports Votes for Women and Dress Reform, Justine’s deep religious faith is counter-balanced by Catherine’s atheism, Diana has been raised by prostitutes and mistrusts men on principle, and Mary finds herself wondering how much more women could accomplish if they were permitted to wear trousers.
These women are a diverse group, each with a distinct and memorable personality and unexpected talents. Though they’ve experienced rejection and cruelty in their lives, and some of them even sexual and other types of abuse, in the process of working together they find support and friendship. They eventually name their group the Athena Club (“We claim the wisdom of Athena, but we identify with her dubious parentage”). As Jana comments, it’s refreshing to see these familiar stories through the eyes of the female characters, rather than the men who used and mistreated them.
The sometimes dark plot of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is lightened by the humorous banter between these women, especially as ― in a rather meta feature of the book ― they continually interrupt Catherine’s writing of their story with snarky comments and arguments about how the book is being written. These side conversations do sap a little of the tension from the story, since it’s clear that all of these young women have survived the investigation and are still together, but they add a fun and creative twist to the story.
Though a part of the mystery is resolved, there are lingering questions about the the Société des Alchimistes, and another mystery raises its head in the end. Here’s hoping for many more adventures and mysteries for the Athena Club!
I don’t need to provide a plot synopsis since Jana’s review does that perfectly, so I could discuss Goss’s nice use of metafiction here. From very early in the book, (Page 2 in my hardback edition) the story subverts the structure of a novel as two voices intrude, one commenting — or, dare I say, offering critique of — the opening. More voices sound as the story continues, and soon we understand who they belong to, that these are the characters themselves, commenting on the book in which they are characters. (The voices actually start earlier, with the epigraph.)
So, I could talk about what this means for a story in which classic characters taken from works of writers as diverse as Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.G. Wells, are given voices; in which they move from being passive objects, creations who were manipulated and given no agency, to beings those whose choices and actions drove the plot. I could talk about that, but there’s something else I want to talk about, and that’s about how must fun this book is. Just that. It leaves you with a lot to think about, but mostly, it’s purely fun.
Mary Jekyll’s discovery of a secret bank account her mother had, and her decision to work with Sherlock Holmes to earn the reward for the capture of Mr. Hyde, leads into one fantastic discovery after another, as the women characters who have been bred or constructed come onto the page. As the story gets deeper, each woman tells her own story. Thus we hear the “cat woman’s’ version of events on Dr. Moreau’s island and the truth about Frankenstein’s second creation. However, the tale doesn’t bog down there. There are strange encounters; there are Beast Men; there are chase scenes and interviews with madmen in dreary, forbidding asylums. There are carnivals, mysterious letters, plenty of secrets and a riverfront warehouse confrontation that would make Doyle himself proud.
I loved the distinctive voices of the “monstrous women” who take center stage here. I enjoyed it when Catherine Moreau, who is the main author of the story, indulges in some shameless self-promotion toward the end of the book. (It’s along the lines of, “If they reader has enjoyed this story, my other works can be found at…”) And I laughed out loud, and had to explain why to my husband, when I read the pure-H.-Rider-Haggard paragraph:
Catherine sat up in her room, opened her notebook, and started writing. “No man who has seen Astarte has lived to tell the tale but one: I, Rick Chambers, Englishman.” Yes, she thought. That sounds just right.
I loved these characters and their adventures and I eagerly await the second book in THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF THE ATHENA CLUB, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, published on July 10, 2018.
Something Jana, Tadiana, and Marion touched on about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter that I loved about the book was the sense of humour. The characters’ senses of humour are a testament to how well the characters work. They’re fully realized, with their own quirks and hang-ups. I liked getting to know them all through their humour as well.
There is a kind of self-referential humour to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter — if the book wasn’t so good (and it is so good — I’m right there with the other reviewers on this one), there is a certain ridiculousness to the premise that, at it’s worse, is more cringey than fun. Characters from unrelated beloved series’ meeting in unlikely circumstances is not a new framework, but Goss does it well on multiple levels. I got the distinct feeling that Goss understands that by blending stories together she has taken a risk.
Goss is asking the reader to suspend their disbelief (as speculative fiction does) and conceive of a world where the diverse stories she is taking cues from could not only exist within the same fictional universe but would also interact in the way she is asserting. First, she, for the most part, focuses on characters that are often not directly central to the inspiration material, or even present. This lateral move means she has more space to create a story that still agrees with the source material, and she does it with great humour. That Goss can maintain a sense of fun along with some of the heavier topics in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a feat in and of itself. I am looking forward to reading the next volume in this series, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman.