Okay, first review, maybe I stick with it this year.
Imagine, if you will, that white European men of the 18th and 19th centuries were not good people. Imagine, further, and I know this might be difficult, that they also desired power and wealth and, you know, eternal life. As one does. And imagine, because I know how women are so highly represented in classical fiction, that white European men of the 18th and 19th centuries absolutely must see themselves as the point of their story. So tricky. So, so very tricky.
Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (available in bookstores and train stations for only two shillings, or via Amazon for decidedly more) is what happens if you consider that there isn’t really any way in hell white European dudes would’ve been just willy-nilly experimenting on themselves when there are perfectly serviceable women to use. Mary Jekyll is newly destitute after the death of her mother and loss of income (her mother’s income being part of a life estate and now gone), but resolute–she shall close out her dwindling bank account, pay what staff she can, and find some kind of job. But upon visiting the banker, she finds her mother had set up another account, paying out to a convent in Whitechapel monthly, for the care of one Diana Hyde. From there, things take a turn down paths readers will find both familiar and delightfully new.
If I tell you someone wrote a genderswapped League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I’d be selling this book extremely short. It is, nevertheless, a reasonable way of gauging whether you’ll dig The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (now available from booksellers for only two shillings). The quest of Mary, Diana, Beatrice (you may know her as Rappaccini’s daughter), Justine (would-be-Bride-of-Frankenstein-except-no-thank-you), and Catherine (Dr Moreau’s puma woman) to solve the Whitechapel murders and also uncover the deeper truth of their origins in the doings of the shadowy Société des Alchimistes, is very much its own animal. The story here is one of friendship, found family, self-determination and the malleable nature of the truth (Frankenstein is still the book we know here, and fictional just as much as it isn’t); the narrative structure even includes contemporaneous interjections from the characters as the novel itself is being written (Catherine being quite a successful novelist some time later) about what really happened, what’s convenient to write about happening, and exactly how much of a pain in the ass Diana is (the answer is almost directly proportional to whether or not she’s gotten to eat).
Also, if it’s a selling point, Sherlock Holmes and Watson also appear in supporting roles, and they’re largely at their best when having their chivalrous impulses politely declined by the ladies of what–the existence of two sequels will inform you–will become the Athena Club. Well. Okay, so Watson’s oblivious death boner is also funny.
Pro-tip: If you’re at all an audiobook person, I highly recommend it.