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

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

Mary is too sensible to be naturally drawn into such outlandish escapades, but life leaves her little choice. She first encounters the exuberant, chaotic Diana Hyde who, alarmingly, claims to be her sister (but how is that possible?). As she delves deeper into her father’s disturbing letters, Mary unearths new names and connections, and realises that some of these other young women have also been searching for answers to their own questions. And all roads lead to London. Mary and Diana discover the beautiful Beatrice Rappacini, miserably obliged to display her lethal talents for a paying audience. A travelling circus reveals the graceful but lethal Catherine Moreau, who brings along another suffering soul in the form of the devout and ageless Justine Frankenstein. While the wit, determination and talent of these five young women make for formidable stuff, they still need a bit of extra help to find out about the shocking East-End murders. Luckily, Mary knows just the person to help: a celebrated detective, always tempted by the unusual and allegedly unsolvable – so it’s off to Baker Street to consult with Sherlock Holmes. He in turn has been receiving worrying letters from a psychiatric hospital, whose patient Renfield has claimed to be the East End murderer. Could these events all be linked? But how? And how far does the power of the Alchemists’ Society really reach?

As you’ll have gathered, this is an affectionate medley of various sources, cheerfully ranging from Frankenstein to Dracula, via The Island of Dr Moreau, Rappaccini’s DaughterDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, I’m sure, other books I’m not so familiar with. This kind of thing is risky, because it can feel a bit lazy if not done well; but there’s no danger of that here. Goss is not only very respectful of the original stories, but also knits them together with immense dexterity. By focusing on the daughters of these infamous men, who are either not canon, or only briefly mentioned (with the obvious exception of Beatrice), she allows herself the freedom to build her own story. And her choice of narrative style is delightful: the story is being written by one of the girls (Catherine), but the others frequently chip in, bicker or correct her, compliment a turn of phrase, and generally add to the book’s playfulness. After all, the plot asks us to consider the way we tell stories – the familiar tales of these scientists focus on the ‘great men’, and Goss’s novel is about turning that on its head. Why not try a different kind of narrative too? Yet perhaps this ‘discursive’ structure, which cheerfully breaks the fourth wall, is also a kind of affectionate tribute to Gothic literature – the epistolary novel, of which we have many examples in that genre, reaches out to the reader in a similar kind of way.

I honestly really enjoyed this. On one level it’s a book for bookworms, who can revel in all the allusions – but it isn’t remotely exclusive. Even if you haven’t read the original novels ‘kitbashed’ here, you’ll probably be familiar enough with their basic storylines to enjoy it as a thoroughly engaging gambol through 19th-century London. Who isn’t vaguely familiar with Sherlock Holmes; Jack the Ripper; Jekyll and Hyde? Goss’s characters are all distinctive and endearing, while the atmosphere is thick with fog and gas-lights and the slow dark rolling of the Thames. Even better, this is only the first of a series – the ‘origin story’, if you like, of a friendship group which promises to have many more exciting adventures down the line. Yes, I bought the next book immediately. No, I haven’t yet read it, because I’d forbidden myself to do so until I wrote this post.

But now I can plunge in!

Buy the book

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