RogerBW's Blog

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, Theodora Goss 13 December 2017

2017 historical fantasy. After the death of her parents, Mary Jekyll – yes, that Jekyll – is left penniless, but with mysteries. There's still a reward for the capture of her father's murderous friend Edward Hyde. But Jekyll is not the only mad scientist to have left a daughter.

The first version of this book was a short story, freely available via Strange Horizons, which I read in The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination and thought was the best in the book. That was mostly a slice-of-life, and this version has more plot, but suffers slightly by being an introductory piece: the five principals (Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappacini, Catherine Moreau and Justine Frankenstein) are each brought in slowly, with a few chapters before each new arrival gets to tell her story. It's the "getting the team together" story that ensemble pieces often seem to require; it's fine as an introduction, but gets the book off to a slow start.

With so many literary sources already, Goss is happy to throw in one more, and Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson also come onto the stage. This feels a little like the sort of gallimaufry that Philip José Farmer or Kim Newman would favour; but unlike those books, which make a point of dragging in everything that will fit, Goss tries to be economical. Holmes is needed for the story, if only as a supporting character, because a group of relatively impecunious young women in a realistic 1890s simply has no access to some of the information that must be obtained in order to answer the questions they have about their fathers and their activities.

There's a sense of fun in the face of danger, as well as a modern sensibility that steers a middle course between "there are some things man was not meant to know" and the unlimited experimentation of a scientist able to ignore ethical principles; the book manages to point out the inequities in the lot of women and to be a good story.

The writing is sloppy ("If we had been more precipitous, we might have run into him casually on the train") and full of the kind of reflexive modern Americanism that throws a native British-speaking reader out of the story; both of these could have been trivially corrected by a reader-in-draft, never mind a copy-editor. A stylistic trick which seems at first as though it will be wearing, but in fact works quite well, is to include interjections by the characters as Catherine writes the story. Less effective is to put the climax three-quarters of the way through the book, then to spend the remainder setting up the putative series.

This isn't slam-bang action, but I rather liked it; it's respectful to the original sources while acknowledging their problems, it has original things to say, and it does a good job of developing the characters. A sequel is expected next summer.

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See also:
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D'Urbervilles, Kim Newman

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