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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss
5
Book Name: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher(s): Saga Press
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy / Mystery
Release Date: June 20, 2017

First, a disclaimer: This book draws heavily on various Victorian and pre-Victorian speculative fiction, as does its sequel (which I will review next month). I was a very precocious teen and actually read all the novels referenced in this book during high school, so I can’t say whether or not the book would be as enjoyable to those who hadn’t. Luckily, most of the references are to relatively famous works, so you should be able to recognize where the characters come from. Still, as there is no list containing the books referenced, any reader who wants to delve more into science fiction and fantasy from over a hundred years ago will want to keep Google handy. If you haven’t read them before, there are some pretty great books out there.

That said, the author doesn’t stick too closely to the original texts. This book is essentially a love letter to the public domain, and it’s an amazingly wild ride throughout.

(Wild in a good way. Had this been published when I was in high school, I would have eaten it up, and my writing might well have been the better for it.)

The story begins with the death of Mary Jekyll’s mother. She had been in poor health for years, with Mary essentially running the household with the help of her housekeeper, Mrs. Poole. From the very start, Theodora Goss gives us a heroine who is not only sympathetic but also competent. Though she is running dangerously short on funds, with only a few pounds to her name, she approaches her difficulties with a level head and a rational mindset. It is this very rationality that propels her into the adventure. While looking after her finances, she comes across the fact that one pound has been sent out at regular intervals for the care of a certain individual named Hyde. As she does not have the money to spare, Mary stops payments and sets out to discover who Hyde might be and why her father had any interest at all in his care.

Many will suspect just who this Hyde might be—I had my own guess—but instead of finding a man who seemed to be wickedness personified, Mary discovers a fourteen-year-old girl named Diana, the daughter of a man named Hyde. Diana is her father’s daughter, but even so, Mary takes her in.

This is not the first stray she will find herself housing, nor is the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the only one the book deals with. A full four works are woven into the plot, not counting Arthur Conan Doyle’s, as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson appear as minor characters. This is not, however, a mere mash-up of various nineteenth century works, tossed together for the sheer love of the century. The works all share a common theme: the hubris of science. Each young woman who joins Mary has a father (though some issues of parentage are more metaphorical) who has been immortalized as a scientist from literature. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, their fathers were not so much concerned with whether they should conduct their experiments as with whether they could.

Their daughters (or creations, as might be more applicable in some cases) are the consequences of what in Victorian times would be considered the folly of man: attempting to use science to meddle too much in the natural world. It is a theme that is with us even today; Hammond of Jurassic Park would not be entirely out of place in the company of Dr. Frankenstein.

And yet this book is not entirely about science’s failing, or even the failings of scientists. If it were, the five girls who make up the protagonists of the book would not appear until the end, or they would cut tragic figures in the style of Frankenstein’s wife. “Look at us,” they might as well say, “see what happens when men try too hard to become gods!”

I like stories of scientific hubris as much as the next girl, but even though many of the girls in this book consider themselves tragedies and the endpoints to their fathers’ stories, the book never treats them as such, and I love it all the more for that. This is a story of five monsters finding friendship in each other and embracing all their difficulties and complexities. Some are perfectly happy to be who they are. Some still mourn that they are not human in the same way as everyone else around them. All, however, have found a family and a home, even if it’s rather unconventional.

Oh, and they help Sherlock Holmes look into a series of murdered women who are each missing one body part.

That’s right, readers! In the midst of this explosion of Victoriana, there’s a Jack the Ripper-style murderer. There’s a lot going on in this book, including a secret society of alchemists who (of course) have ties to each of the girl’s fathers, but it never feels like there’s too much. It helps that this is the first in a series, and therefore there isn’t quite so much pressure to have everything wrapped up by the end, but it also helps that Goss gives herself the space to let each element breathe. In what I choose to believe is a subtle nod toward Victorian novels, this book is a doorstopper. Mary and her fellow experiments have hundreds upon hundreds of pages to unravel not only a murder mystery but also the mystery of their origins.

The novel is tender, exciting, and funny by turns. I went into it expecting a fun ride, and that’s exactly what I got. I’m eager for the second book in the series, and for hopefully many more.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Elfy says:

    TSCotAD is a fun rides as is the sequel. It had its genesis in a short story The Mad Scientist’s Daughter which was published on Strange Horizons and in the anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination (IMO the stand out entry in the collection), I was rapt it became a novel. Goss is a singular talent and we’ll be lucky to see more of her work.

  2. Avatar Sam F. says:

    I really enjoyed your review. This book had been on my radar for a while, but you have convinced me to go ahead and dive in!

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