Book Review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

A good friend recently gave me a book for Christmas–always a chancy endeavor, as it can be hard to find just the right one.  She hit the mark beautifully though, as I loved The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss.

The story begins as Mary Jekyll buries her mother.  Clearing up her mother’s affairs, Mary finds a regular payment being made for the care and keeping of “Hyde.”  Baffled by this apparent connection to her deceased father’s hideous, long-missing assistant, she follows the clues.  She finds Diana Hyde, and in the process winds up assisting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as they investigate the Whitehall Murders.  Tracing clues to a secret alchemists’ society, Mary and Diana find Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau and Justine Frankenstein, all a different shade of monster.

This is one of those books that has such a wonderful premise it’s hard to dare hope it will live up to it–but it does!  This is a wonderful exploration into the world of Gothic, Victorian literature, but turned sideways and much more feminist.  Each woman (including Mary, though we don’t have full answers about her yet) has been shaped by her alchemist father (or creator), but this is very much the women’s story.  Each one is a fully-formed individual with agency, and the story is about them, not their fathers.

In some ways this reminds me of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, drawing greatly from classics of literature, while putting an entirely new angle on them–with an active, realistic heroine (or five).

Beatrice Rappaccini is the only one from a story I wasn’t familiar with (a Nathanial Hawthorne tale of a man who made his daughter poisonous by exposing her to poisonous plants, according to Google).  It was so much fun to revisit these stories I recognized from the new perspective.  And I think the story would work even if you don’t know the originals.  Each woman tells her own story, providing ample background (while still being interested if you know the basics, since the point of view is changed and much is amplified or added).

We also have a very well done Holmes and Watson.  I am particular about using other authors’ characters, and about these two especially (so often badly done by), but I was happy with the portrayal.  They felt like Doyle’s characters, with maybe a dash of fresh energy.  I especially loved a bit when they desperately need passage on a ship, and Holmes must prove his identity by deducing random things about the ship captain.  I also enjoyed that Holmes and Watson are famous in London from Watson’s stories published in the Strand magazine–as they really were!  A nice meta touch.

Another meta and rather experimental element–Catherine Moreau is “writing” the novel, and she includes on occasion the other girls’ interruptions and comments on her writing, set out as script dialogue.  It’s a fun extra nuance to the story, giving a little more insight to each character.

In some ways this felt very much like an origin story, a kind of “how we met” tale.  The book ends promising more adventures, and I am pleased to see the sequel is due out in July.  I hope for many more installments of The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club.

Author’s Site:

Other reviews:
Bookalicious Babe
Vampire Book Club
Anyone else?

Buy it here (you know you want to!): The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

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