The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. ★★★★
In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss mixes together some popular literature of the 19th century (particularly science fiction and horror) with an emphasis on female characters.
The story opens with Mary Jekyll burying her mother. Her mother’s death has left her penniless, and she has no idea what course her life will now take. Then she discovers that her mother paid a monthly sum for the care of “Hyde.” Mary immediately remembers her father’s old associate, who still has a reward out on him for information leading to his capture. She takes the information to London’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his associate Dr. Watson, who are themselves investigating a series of gruesome murders. Mary quickly learns two things. Firstly, “Hyde” is not her father’s old associate but his young and troublesome daughter, Diana. Secondly, the mysteries of her heritage may be bound up in the current murder case.
Mary begins gathering around her fellow daughters of literature’s mad scientists. I wasn’t familiar with all of the literature Goss was using, but I knew of most. While I haven’t read the tales Mary Jenkell, Diana Hyde, Catherin Moreau and Justine Frankenstein originated from, pop culture osmosis has come in handy. Beatrice Rappaccini was the only one I was truly unfamiliar with. Turns out she’s from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” It was quite a lot of fun to read about some well known characters running around London in the 1890’s. Classic Literature fanfic? Then again, so many books can be described that way!
The format of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a bit odd, but I liked it. The conceit’s that the book is being written by Catherine, who’s telling the tale of how all these women met. The other women have their own comments and opinions on the story Catherine’s telling, and she includes these in lieu of changing the manuscript to reflect their concerns. The meta-commentary could be delightful, and I think it went a good way towards building the characterization of the women in question. It really helps them come to life.
The format does mean that you know ahead of time that the central characters make it through the mystery alive. Indeed, one of them spills the beans with a comment that they solve the case. Of course, I assumed as much when I began the story, so it didn’t take away much from the narrative. Most of the tension comes from lingering questions regarding the women’s heritage, the connections between them, and how they create a new life together.
At heart, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is about something I love a lot: a group of extraordinary women coming together and creating a found family. I look forward to whatever Theodora Goss chooses to write next.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.