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

Friday, November 10, 2017 - 07:00

A historic fantasy featuring an ensemble of fascinating female characters--the "daughters" (in various senses) of various classics horror fiction protagonists. This is the sort of book that often leaps to the top of my to-be-read list. I liked it...but I didn’t love it, which always makes me sad. So first: why did I like it? The premise is full of promise. Mary Jeckyll (daughter of the late doctor) finds information after her mother’s death that results in her taking responsibility for a young woman named Diana Hyde, evidently the daughter of her late father’s assistant who disappeared after being charged with murder (the assistant, not the daughter). They stumble into participating in Sherlock Holmes' investigation of the gruesome murder of a prostitute, and soon clues are turning up to a mysterious “Society of Alchemists” that appears to tie all sorts of threads together, including several other rather unusual women whose fathers were similarly connected to the Society. For anyone familiar with weird literature of the 19th century, picking up on the hints and clues will be a large part of the fun of this story.

The writing is solidly competent and the characters of the various women are distinct and colorful. What didn’t work for me quite as well was the structure of the plot, which feels a great deal like working through the collective origin stories of a band of superheroes without quite getting to the adventure they tackle together. Each character narrates her history to the others which, while, it fills in essential information for the reader, results in a very slow build-up. The need to fit these expository chapters in where they don’t disrupt the flow of the action (which is quite dense and break-neck) can lead to some strange pacing, such as when Justine Frankenstein tells the others her story in the aftermath of the dramatic climax. To be sure, there is a climax and a natural conclusion to the book, as well as a clear opening for a sequel. But this book feels like the set-up for that sequel rather than a stand-alone story.

The other narrative technique that didn’t entirely work for me--and I feel like this is a bit petty--is the meta-fiction of the story’s structure. One of the women is writing up the adventure, deliberately in the style of a penny-dreadful and told from the points of view of the various participants. This narrative is interrupted at regular intervals by commentary among the women, criticizing the wording, their portrayals, and arguing with the choices of the writer. The meta-fiction is that the lot of them are, in essence, hanging over the shoulder of the writer as she works and having their interjections and comments recorded in real time. But the feel of it, to me, was more like an MST3K running commentary--more oral than written--which kept throwing me out of the meta-fictional context. (That is, I might not have been bothered if the side comments felt more like something set down originally in writing than transcribed from audio.) To be fair, it’s an imaginative technique and has the dual functions of turning what might otherwise be a somewhat flat narration into a more lively time-disrupted sequence, and of introducing us to the personalities of the entire group of women long before they enter the storyline, which in some cases comes fairly late in the game.

 So, as I said, liked it but didn’t love it, primarily for structural reasons in the writing. But if you're intrigued by the female viewpoint on the consequences of classic horror stories, this will be right up your alley.

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