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

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Series: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club 
Author: Theodora Goss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 20, 2017
Length: 402 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

 

When we meet Mary Jekyll, she’s in a sorry state. Her mother has just died after many years of madness, and Mary is left in her family home, already stripped of valuables over the years as she sold whatever she could in order to make ends meet. Now, Mary has no choice but to dismiss the household staff, count her few remaining coins, and try to find a way to eke out a few more. When Mary learns that her mother was sending regular payments to “Hyde”, care of a religious society, she’s both suspicious of blackmail and motivated to find out more.

Seeking the help of the famous Sherlock Holmes, Mary sets out to discover the truth about these payments, and ends up stumbling into the mystery of the Whitechapel murders as well. Could there be a connection? 

As the story progresses, Mary learns that her deceased father was a member of a secret society dedicated to scientific pursuit outside the bounds of the established scientific community. Specifically, these mad scientists seem to be dedicated to transmutation — pursuing a faster path to evolution by creating new forms of life. Mary’s investigations lead her to the daughters/creations of these men. Soon, this group of women are bound together by circumstance as well as affection, as they pursue the truth about their fathers’ Society of Alchemists and end up fighting for their lives.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is utterly charming and engaging. It’s a clever concept, bringing together a group of young women who are at best side notes in the original classic fiction from which they and their fathers originate and placing them at center stage. As the author makes clear, these women cannot and and will not be thought of as scientific oddities; they are unique individuals, new and different and outside the norms of society, yet with rich inner lives and a strong will to set the course of their own lives.

The writing here is smart and quirky. The book is presented as the narrative of the women’s adventure as written by Catherine — but throughout the book, the others interject their comments and critiques, pointing out places where Catherine is being too flowery or dramatic, or where she’s getting the details wrong. Meanwhile, as Mary meets each new character, they get the chance to tell their own stories, and each one is powerful and fascinating. 

There’s plenty of action, and quite a bit of humor. The Victorian setting works perfectly as a backdrop for the adventure. I always love stories of found families, and this one is a terrific example. All these women have been maltreated and discarded, but together, they form a new family in order to face the world together. As with any family, there are squabbles and disagreements and bickering, but at bedrock, there’s also love and support and protection — the whole is definitely greater than its parts.

There are two more books in the series, and I do intend to continue… although I may hold off for a little while, after realizing that book #2, European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, is over 700 pages. Still, I definitely want to see what happens next with this eccentric group of daring women! 

Highly recommended! Fans of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn will appreciate the setting, the bantering, and the role of the scientifically adventurous women. It’s all great fun — don’t miss it!

 

Book Review: Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel


Pride and Prejudice meets Frankenstein as Mary Bennet falls for the enigmatic Victor Frankenstein and befriends his monstrous Creature in this clever fusion of two popular classics.

Threatened with destruction unless he fashions a wife for his Creature, Victor Frankenstein travels to England where he meets Mary and Kitty Bennet, the remaining unmarried sisters of the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. As Mary and Victor become increasingly attracted to each other, the Creature looks on impatiently, waiting for his bride. But where will Victor find a female body from which to create the monster’s mate?

Meanwhile, the awkward Mary hopes that Victor will save her from approaching spinsterhood while wondering what dark secret he is keeping from her.

Pride and Prometheus fuses the gothic horror of Mary Shelley with the Regency romance of Jane Austen in an exciting novel that combines two age-old stories in a fresh and startling way.

My thoughts:

The classic/monster mash-up may seem played out by now, but I promise you that Pride and Prometheus is something quite different, and definitely worth reading.

This isn’t a case of an author putting otherworldly creatures — zombies, werewolves, vampires — into an existing story. Sure, those are fun, but once the charm of the gimmick wears off, so does the entertainment value.

Instead, Pride and Prometheus is a continuation of two stories, Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein. The author takes two narratives, and imagines what might have happened to these familiar characters if their paths crossed.

We begin more than a decade after the events of Pride and Prejudice. Mary Bennet, at age 32, has mellowed and grown since we last saw her. She’s learned more about herself and others. From the scorn and dismissal she experienced as a teen, she’s learned to be more thoughtful, to understand how her lectures and self-righteousness come across to others, and as a result, she’s become a young woman who’s more self-contained. She knows her own mind, but imposes less on others. Meanwhile, Kitty too remains unmarried, and the sisters live at home with their aging parents, growing closer to one another but neither particularly happy about their approaching spinsterhood.

Meanwhile, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature picks up soon after the events in Frankenstein. The Creature has sworn vengeance on Victor, threatening to destroy everyone he holds dear, unless he makes a mate for him so he’ll no longer be so alone in the world. In Pride and Prometheus, we follow Victor as he travels to England to try to escape his suffering — and we also follow the Creature, who pursues Victor relentlessly.

Mary has developed an interest in science, and when she meets Victor in a social setting, they seem to hit it off. He responds to her interest in his work, and she’s enamored of his intellect, his scientific curiosity and daring, and his treatment of her as if she were both intelligent and interesting. But with the Creature stalking Victor, things soon take a dark turn, and Mary becomes embroiled in the drama of Victor’s attempts to keep his promise to the Creature, while at the same time developing sympathy for the Creature and becoming convinced that he too is a soul worthy caring for.

The author’s writing approach in Pride and Prometheus is just so clever and well-done. In alternating chapters, we see the story from Mary, Victor, and the Creature’s points-of-view. As the narrator changes, so too does the writing style. The Mary chapters, told in 3rd person, have an Austen-esque tone, and the Victor/Creature chapters, told in first-person, have the gothic feel of Mary Shelley.

Familiarity with both original works — Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein — is helpful if you truly want to enjoy Pride and Prometheus, although maybe not completely essential. The story would still be entertaining, I suppose, without having read the original works, but I’m not sure the reader would get as much out of it. For me, it’s been many, many years since I read Frankenstein, and I realized soon after starting this book that I needed a refresher. Of course, there are tons of synopses available online, which helped, but reading Pride and Prometheus piqued my interest in going back and reading Frankenstein again.

Pride and Prometheus stands on its own as a creative, moving, and engaging story, and it’s also an absolute treat for anyone with a fondness for the original works that inspired it. With terrific writing that manages to capture the flavors of the originals while also telling a story that’s new, startling, and compelling, Pride and Prometheus is a great read that I hope will find an appreciative audience. I know I really enjoyed reading it… and I can’t wait to find other people who’ve read it too, so we can talk about it!

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The details:

Title: Pride and Prometheus
Author: John Kessel
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: February 13, 2018
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Speculative/science fiction/classics
Source: Library

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