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

On Sale in Paperback: March 2018

“Spectacular cases are usually simpler, and less interesting, than they initially appear.”

Mary Jekyll has had a rough year. Her father, scientist and gentleman Dr. Jekyll, died when Mary was just a young girl, leaving Mary and her mother without any money or prospects—a hard-learned truth, when the women discover that Jekyll had mysteriously liquidated his funds and sent his fortune to places unknown. Over the years, Mary has sold off pieces of their home to make ends meet and maintain a semblance of propriety—as her mother, Ernestine, has slipped deeper into her mental illness, things have only become harder. When Mary’s mother passes away, Mary is wracked with grief…and then is delivered more bad news. The meager income that Ernestine received from Mary’s late grandfather, keeping the household staffed and food on the table, was only a life-income. Mary is faced with a grim reality: try as she may to be hired as a secretary, governess, or any type of respectable profession, she is not qualified for the role and cannot find employment.

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And so, when Mary learns that there is a provision in her family’s estate that provides for routine payment for upkeep of “Hyde”, she is eager to seize on the money, but also intrigued by the mystery. Hyde, of course, Mary remembers—he was a madman and a murderer who, yes, was her father’s assistant, but who is better off dead and gone. Her search, however, leads her to a young adolescent girl named Diana—Hyde’s daughter, who has been kept a secret at a facility for fallen and lost women, all these years.

When a string of murdered young women start to pop up around London and clues point towards the long-presumed dead Mr. Hyde, Mary and Diana are pulled into the case. With the help of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the daughters of Jekyll and Hyde discover a much larger conspiracy involving their fathers at play. And they aren’t the only two daughters caught in the crossfire...

Theodora Goss crafts a wonderful, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style Victorian era mashup mystery in her sophomore novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. What’s not to love? A sisterhood of monsters—the results of genetic and alchemical experimentation, created by cruel, selfish fathers—band together to learn the mystery of their creation and stop the true monsters from hurting others. Thought their creation may have been unkind and the circumstances that drew them all together horrendous, they are together. The monstrous women of this novel are a found family, and the love and care that blossoms between them is beautiful to read.

Goss draws on a wide range of literary figures in this novel to form her core cast of characters—at the heart of the narrative, there’s Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde (who eventually learn that they are actual blood sisters sharing the same father) from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, from which Goss’s novel derives its name, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The women meet up with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson--both Sherlock and Watson are male and are played straight from Doyle’s source material. (As an aside, if you want to read a female Sherlock and Watson story, I highly recommend Sherry Thomas’s A Study in Scarlet Women.) Then there are the other female monsters. Beatrice Rappaccini is heartbreakingly beautiful, but as the result of her father’s experiments with poisonous herbs and plants, her very breath and touch are deadly—taken from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story, Rappaccini’s Daughter. There is the feline Catherine “Cat” Moreau, who once was a puma but is now a woman thanks to the experimentation of her creator/father, the eponymous Doctor from H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. And—of course!—there is Justine Frankenstein; the woman created by Victor Frankenstein as a companion to his Adam in the only female-authored source material in this novel, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.

Using this far-ranging cast, Goss creates a mystery about an alchemical society with disturbing motives, set against a backdrop of young women who are being murdered in surgical, experimental fashion. There are family secrets and reckonings aplenty in this novel as the monstrous women learn more about their creation and decide to fight back to save others from their monstrous fate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about monsters this week—having just recently finished this book as well as the second season of Jessica Jones, the idea of made-monsters is a recurring theme in both. What constitutes a monster? If one is created with singular abilities of physical strength, or the ability to kill with a single touch, or the power to rip a grown man to shreds with ones fingers and teeth, does that make one a monster? Like Jessica, the women of this novel did not ask for their abilities; similarly, because they are unique in their powers and appearance, they are seen as dangerous monsters to some. But it’s all a matter of perspective—what these women choose to do with their power and knowledge is all that really matters. Goss (and Jessica Jones) does a fantastic job of unpacking this theme.

The only part of the novel that I found a little lacking was with the many (and I mean many) asides throughout the text between each of the monsters/sisters. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is written as a framing narrative—Cat is writing a novel about how the women met and their first case together. As such, there are frequent interruptions in which the women crack jokes or make suggestions/objections to Cat’s narrative. This is an interesting device and can be enlightening (I particularly like Cat’s author’s note at the end of the manuscript, regarding Shelley’s Frankenstein)—but it also gets a little old rather quickly. Similarly, Diana Hyde speaks in a number of anachronisms that seem out of place in the 1890s and more attuned with a pre-teen of the 2010s. That said, this is a but a minor flaw in a superb overall novel. I loved these sisters very much, and I cannot wait for their next adventure.

In Book Smugglerish, 7 and a half secret alchemical insignias out of 10.