I have paused to show you Mary staring into the mirror because this is a story about monsters. All stories about monsters contain a scene in which the monster sees himself in a mirror.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, begins the story with a funeral; Mary Jekyll sees her mother laid to rest. But before that we are treated to commentary notes. Mary Jekyll, main protagonist of the book, objects to Catherine Moreau (who is, in fact, writing the book because she needs money), beginning with the epigraph Here Be Monsters. These side arguments about narration and who did what continue throughout the story. This is not just playing with the concept of ‘unreliable narrator’ but bringing up ‘unreliable narrators’ plural. It gets into how novelists invariably try to make their tales fit a narrative, how people’s recollections and impressions differ, and most of all, the varying personalities and temperaments of the book’s heroines, who are frequently in conflict with one another.
And what heroines they are! Not long after her mother’s death, Mary stumbles onto the existence of Diana Hyde the half-sister she never knew existed. Diana is a fabulously feral creature born and raised among London’s prostitutes with a peculiar affinity for climbing like a monkey. She and Mary soon make the acquaintance of such other figures as Beatrice Rappaccini, the beautiful Poison Girl from Italy, yellow-eyed Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. They soon realize that they are connected; they are all the daughters (or ahem, CREATIONS) of a group of scientists, members of a secret society who went far, FAR beyond the scope of Nature or Ethics.
Meanwhile Mary’s housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, is left to the logistical nightmare of feeding and clothing all these disparate women with their…special needs. And did we mention that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are helping them as well, while also investigating a related series of gruesome killings in Whitechapel?
If it all sounds a bit complicated…well it is. And much of the novel functions as exposition into the girls origins and their troubled relationships with their respective ‘fathers,’ as they form a new quasi-family with one another. Goss manages to give her heroines distinctive voices and create a vibrant picture of Victorian Age London where penny dreadful novels were all true. Some questions are answered by the end of the book, but deeper mysteries remain because it’s clear The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is intended to be the first in a new series and it certainly whets your appetite for more.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
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