TITLE: The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #1)
AUTHOR: Theodora Goss
GENRE: Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: June 20, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Lately I’ve noticed something interesting in the media I’ve been consuming, especially in the video games I've been playing. What I have noticed is that a lot of these stories and video games focus on the father-daughter relationship. Indeed, the trope has become so popular that any game wherein the father-child dynamic is an important element of the game’s story, particularly when the player character is the father, is called a “Dad Simulator”. Their rise in popularity is due to many factors, most notably how a significant number of gamers have gotten older and are now more likely to be parents themselves.
Of course, some of the games do not portray the father-daughter relationship in a positive or even realistic light. The article I have linked to raises some interesting questions about how the daughter-figures in the games mentioned seem to be more like tools: whether that is to serve as a kind of McGuffin, to serve a function in the father-figure’s development, and/or the game-play itself. Whether such poor portrayal was a deliberate choice on the part of the creators or a result of sloppy storytelling and a deep misunderstanding of what parenthood is actually like, is not entirely clear. What matters here is the article author’s final note: that it was a relief when the daughter-figures managed to escape their father-figure’s clutches, one way or another.
Escape from a father’s influence or shadow is a key theme of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, the first book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. It opens with Mary Jekyll, daughter of Dr. Henry and Ernestine Jekyll, contemplating her living situation now that her mother has passed away. With her mother dead Mary can no longer rely upon the living income her mother used to bring in while alive, and though she herself has tried looking for a job, she hasn’t been able to find any. Faced with such uncertainty, Mary decides that at the moment, it is better to deal with what she does know than what she does not - including her mother’s papers.
But amongst her parents’ papers, she finds intriguing evidence that Edward Hyde, her father’s former assistant and wanted criminal, might still be alive. Hoping to collect the reward so she has some money to live on while job-hunting, she takes her information to London’s best detective: Sherlock Holmes. She also learns of a series of gruesome murders of women in Whitechapel and thinks that Hyde might be responsible for them. Determined to get to the very bottom of this mystery, Mary tracks down her own leads, a hunt which leads her to Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. These women then reveal that Mary’s father was connected to a secret society of scientists who would stop at nothing to test the limits of the human body - and only the five of them can stop that society from working its horrors on the world.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this novel is that it is a pastiche of the most popular Gothic/horror novels and stories from the nineteenth century: Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”. Reading those books before reading this novel is not strictly necessary; the stories are “retold,” after a fashion, in the novel itself, though of course with alterations to suit the novel’s narrative. However, readers who have already read the originals will certainly have an advantage, not only because they will enjoy the intertextual pleasures pastiches like this one provide, but also because they will be sharply aware of what, precisely, the author is doing with this novel.
The most obvious theme is how the author plays around with ideas related to father-daughter relationships; specifically, freedom from the father’s literal and metaphorical grip. The major female characters in this novel are all victims of their father’s ambitions, to some greater or lesser degree. It is interesting that the author has chosen to focus specifically on paternal, as opposed to maternal, influence on daughters - but I suppose that is deliberate. After all, there are very many stories out there that comment upon the complex and complicated relationships mothers have with their daughters, so perhaps it is time to put some focus on the ways fathers shape their daughters - sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill.
In this story, of course, it is quite clear that these fathers have not done right by their daughters at all. But that is not what matters; what does matter is how each woman is able to distinguish and separate herself from her father’s legacy, no matter how much that legacy continues to control her in the story’s present. This is especially true in the case of Diana, Justine, Beatrice, and Catherine: for them, there is no escaping their fathers’ legacy, for they are that legacy, for better or for worse. Despite that they try their best, each in her own way, to live with their lot in life and make the best of it. Their fathers will forever exert an influence on their lives, but that does not mean they cannot carve a slice of freedom and joy out of the world now that they are (mostly) free of their fathers’ control. This is as true in fiction as it is in the real world: sometimes all a person can really do is to break away and find such happiness as he or she can, making the best of what already is.
Note, however, that I did not include Mary in the above list because she is not as marked by her father’s actions as the four aforementioned women. Despite that, she does not escape unscathed. Though she has not technically undergone the same sort of ordeal as the other women, it is hinted that she is not quite so normal, either:
DIANA: Because our Mary never cries.
MRS. POOLE: Miss Mary is a lady. She does not throw fits, unlike someone I could name.
MARY: It’s not my fault I don’t cry. You know perfectly well it’s not.
CATHERINE: Yes, we know.
Of course, simply because Mary does not cry at the drop of the hat does not mean she is insusceptible to stronger emotion. Throughout the novel, she shows she is more than capable of feeling things like fear, guilt, great joy, and so on, so her not having a tendency for tears ought not to be worthy of any comment. But the fact remains that the narrative pointed it out, which means there’s some sort of reason for it. The novel does not explain - or if it does, I must not have noticed it. Either way, I suspect that Mary’s inability to cry is rooted in something - likely her past and, therefore, her father. To the extent Jekyll’s actions have influenced Mary and turned her into the person she is in the novel’s present is something that will likely be revealed in the upcoming sequels.
Apart from the theme of freedom from a father’s influence, freedom from the strictures of society is another key theme. The book is overall feminist in theme, as the previous discussion shows, but it also shows in smaller, often humorous, moments and asides. Take the following excerpt:
… But when she had put on the shirt and trousers, [Mary] realized what freedom they would give her. How easily she could move, without petticoats swishing around her legs! What could women accomplish if they did not have to continually mind their skirts, keep them from dragging in the mud or getting trampled on the steps of an omnibus? If they had pockets! With pockets, women could conquer the world! …
… What was the use of propriety when it kept one from getting things done?
Throughout the novel, the women try to find ways of getting around the strictures of Victorian society, but each does so according to her preferences. Diana and Catherine simply aren’t inclined to follow the rules and opt not to do so unless they absolutely must (though Catherine is far cannier at figuring out when she can or cannot break the rules than Diana). Beatrice, Justine, and Mary, on the other hand, manipulate and use the norms in ways that advance their own objectives. Their subversion of societal norms, whether overtly or covertly, allows them the freedom to live more or less independently and according to their own whims. For many of them, this freedom is worth the small inconveniences of having to earn a living or (for Diana anyway) acting “proper” when necessary.
Now, while the themes of the novel are well in hand and well played-out, other aspects of the story do not sit very well with me. First: the insertion of “off-screen dialogue”, as it were, between the female protagonists and certain supporting characters. They remind me of the “character talk” sections so popular in early to mid-2000s fan fiction, though at least these insertions are connected to the story somehow. However, they also get in the way of the story’s overall narrative flow, to say nothing of how they are, essentially, spoilers. It is rather hard to fear for the safety of any of the main characters when the reader already knows that they will all survive since they are still interjecting their opinions during the “writing” of the novel.
Second: I don’t quite like the story's conclusion. It is rather overextended; I think that moving certain story elements from the conclusion to an appropriate point before it would make much better structural sense, as well as tighten the ending in a way that works favourably with the wrap-up of the novel’s climactic events.
Lastly: there are hints of a romance in this novel that I do not quite appreciate. It is not overly intrusive and so some readers might actually not pick up on it but I was able to pick up on it, and I am certain there are other readers who will, too. I did not particularly appreciate it; not because I don’t like romantic plot threads, but because of the way the female half of the proposed couple appears to be constantly seeking the male half’s approval. I suppose the reader can view it as a kind of character flaw, but the desire for approval so thoroughly works against the novel’s otherwise strongly-feminist underpinnings that it seems completely out of place.
Overall, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is an entertaining pastiche that will tickle the fancy of fans of Gothic and Victorian literature, as well as fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories. It is underpinned by a set of strong feminist themes, mostly to do with what it means to be a woman free from the influence of both personal heritage and society at large and allowed to live according to one’s desires. However, it does have some problems: namely insertions of “off-screen dialogue” between characters, and an ending that goes on a little longer than it should. If the reader can look past those admittedly minor flaws, then he or she will likely find plenty to enjoy about this novel and will have a good reason to look forward to its sequel.