If I had to describe The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter in one word, it would be delightful.
Low on funds, Mary Jekyll (note surname) wants to solve an old murder committed by her father’s former lab assistant Mr Hyde and claim the reward for his capture. She suspects Hyde is linked to a current gruesome murder spree in London: somebody is killing young women and taking their body parts. During her investigation, she finds young Diana, who claims not only to be Hyde’s daughter but Mary’s half-sister. The strange case becomes even stranger as the two (with the help of a certain Sherlock Holmes) run into and help a whole array of women who were created/altered through experimentation. Together, the women (plus Holmes and Watson) need to investigate the elusive alchemist’s society that connects them all — and stop the current set of murders.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pastiche of 19th century fantasy and mystery fiction. It’s inherently a silly but extremely fun premise and the book absolutely rolls with it. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with all the referenced stories (which include Sherlock Holmes, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Rappacini’s Daughter, The Island of Dr Moreau, Frankenstein, and one or two others I won’t spoil). Personally, I’ve only read one, I know a couple through cultural osmosis, and others even less. While I’m sure I missed some sly hints, we get the backstory of each of the women and the book plays liberally with the source material to boot.
The book’s thus less about clever references but rather about a group of young women, mistreated by their fathers/creators until they become “monstrous”. Take Beatrice, a scientist whose breath has been made poisonous and who therefore has to avoid physical touch so that she doesn’t kill someone. Or Catherine, the, uh, more literal interpretation of a cat lady. Or Justine, the “giantess”. Even Mary, who seems to be the most normal of them all, doesn’t quite fit into Victorian society with her highly practical ways and interest in Holmes-style deductive reasoning. This does make the first part of the book a little Avengers, Assemble! as we get five main characters plus backstory introduced in short order. But each character is fun, and they play off each other and clash with each other in interesting ways.
Another thing that made the book so entertaining was how it’s written. Our “real” author is Catherine, who’s trying to pen their adventures a few years down the line. She gets interrupted a lot by the other characters; they often insist she’s getting their thoughts and actions wrong (“Mary dreamed of a leering Mr Hyde walking through London… Mary: I don’t remember dreaming any such thing!”). Catherine’s attempts to build suspense or add a more Victorian-esque “tragic heroine” vibe are also often poked fun at by the others, which adds an extra layer of meta humour to the whole thing. I listened to the audiobook (whose narrator handles the switches great) and must have looked like a crazy person, wandering around town laughing.
Not that there’s no meat underneath the fluff. At its heart, the story is about women who don’t fit into society helping each other survive and find acceptance. Just as it rolls with its pastiche nature, it also doesn’t shy away from its feminism. One of my favourite bits was the group having to disguise themselves in men’s clothing (because of course) and Mary marvelling over pockets. “With pockets, women could conquer the world!” This then leads into a short 19th century argument about women’s clothing, including Rational Dress reform. But because the tone is so light, it doesn’t feel at all preachy. It’s just a group of women, talking about things women talk about: the inconvenience of dresses, how best to escape a group of inhuman creatures hunting them through the streets of London…
So, if a super fun, light-hearted, female-centric mystery appeals to you, definitely pick it up! As a bonus, the second book, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is coming out in a couple days (July 10th). I can’t wait.
I especially recommend this book for:
- People who like pastiches/reinterpretations
- Fans of mysteries (more cozy than hardboiled)
- (Sorry, I’m not actually a mystery fan so I have zero thoughts on whether the mystery plotline was well put together or not. I wanted to find out what happened next and could guess some stuff and was shocked by other stuff, the end.)
- Fans of Victorian-era stories
- But with waaaay less romance (it’s really only present in a couple of the backstories) than a lot of female-centric stories set in that period
- People who enjoyed Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons