RogerBW's Blog

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss 10 July 2021

2018 historical fantasy, second of a trilogy. The five monstrous daughters/creations of mad scientists have made a life for themselves in London; but their old governess Miss Murray wants their help in Vienna with Lucinda van Helsing and the secretive Société des Alchimistes…

The first book suffered from the gradual introduction of the characters; this one doesn't, because the team's already together by the time the thing starts. On the other hand there are even more characters borrowed from more Victorian literature; it was clear that Bram Stoker would be an influence, and Conan Doyle is if anything downplayed relative to the first book, but we get new characters from Rider Haggard, Sheridan Le Fanu, and probably others that I missed. It's all a bit too much: each original book could say that these strange things happen but society carries on because they're small things in a large world, but when all the stories have some truth behind them it feels less plausible that the world is recognisable at all, and more as though everyone ought to be finding out about this stuff.

Combine that with very blatant Americanism – these people are meant to be living in London and speaking English, none of them except Irene Norton has ever been to America, yet they constantly talk of shirtwaists ("blouses" to us); they regard London being warm in late summer as "miraculous" (no, it's always been hot and stuffy, that's why the smart set go to the country, and if you don't have actual records see Dickens earlier or Dornford Yates later); a chapter is titled "Crossing the British Channel" – and the whole thing feels just slightly off.

Mary Jekyll walks across Regent's Park to get to Baker Street to see Sherlock Holmes, and that's fine, but she lives on "Park Terrace". (In central London, it's "Regent's Park Terrace".) And she thinks about going via Marylebone Road rather than through the Park, even though there's no reason to do so (it's rather longer as well as less pleasant). And there's no mention of the London Zoo that she'd be going right past on the "paths beneath [the] trees", though she's very much the sort of person who would remark at animal noises. And yes, all right, normally I wouldn't care about errors that small, but (a) the book is, alas, not terribly engaging at this point, so rather than being carried along by the story I found myself looking up historical street maps, and (b) Goss proudly thanks Farah Mendelsohn for putting her up when she visited London for research, and Farah is the same person whom Connie Willis thanked as her guide to London for Blackout and All Clear. Apparently if you stay with her you don't need to have any other English person read your book for errors and Americanisms.

The story itself is enjoyable, a trip to Vienna and then on to Budapest (via Styria) to confront the Société, but somehow the whole thing ends up feeling flabby. There's a whole paragraph explaining what a dog-whistle is. There's lots of talk about just what sort of food you can buy in the streets and cafés of Budapest – and I usually love this kind of detail, but it feels forced-in to get the book up to a target length rather than occurring as a natural part of the story. And it turns out the climactic events were all orchestrated anyway, which is always a bit of a let-down.

There's a load of foreshadowing about Irene Norton's amazing friend with a new understanding of disorders of the mind, in Vienna in the 1890s, who could he possibly be, we won't give his name so as to keep up the suspense until the last possible moment… gosh I would never have guessed it would be him, if I were as utterly ignorant of history as I'm apparently expected to be.

Also of course this is a middle volume, so while some minor plots are brought to a conclusion it's not really a stopping point.

I fear that I've been coasting on the goodwill generated in me by the original short story, helped by its being the best thing in an otherwise fairly lacklustre collection; I liked its expansion to novel length less than the short, and I liked this book less than that first one. Oh well. I'll probably carry on with volume 3 at some point.

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See also:
Blackout/All Clear, Connie Willis

Previous in series: The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter | Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club | Next in series: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl

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