Reviewed by Katya Rara
THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER By Theodora Goss 416 pp. Saga Press.
Mary Jekyll hasn’t had the best of luck. The daughter of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a brilliant chemist, Mary once had her whole life ahead of her—but after her father’s suicide over thirteen years ago, and now her mother’s death, she’s orphaned and penniless, with nowhere left to go.
When Mary uncovers a secret bank account belonging to her mother, she finds herself hot on the heels of the fiendish Edward Hyde, and the reward money she could receive for apprehending him.
But when her investigation leads her to Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Diana Hyde—a half-feral redhead who claims to be her sister—she gets drawn into a mystery unlike any other… one that leads her into a world full of madmen, monsters, and men who are both.
The investigation is afoot
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter reeled me in simply by being set in one of my favorite time periods: the Victorian era. It immediately ticked off a bunch of boxes: Murder—check. Mystery—check. Victorian fashion—check. And who could say no to seeing some of the world’s most infamous monsters in one place?
But quickly, The Strange Case revealed itself to be more than a mystery with a collection of intriguing characters. Rather, it meant to be their vindication—a chance to let women, brushed aside or absent entirely from narratives, have their stories heard.
There’s a lot to unpack here
Full disclosure: I’ve never read any of the novels that inspired Goss: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter, which gave birth to my favorite character, Beatrice Rappaccini; H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, which birthed Catherine Moreau; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from which came Justine Frankenstein; and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which spurred Goss to create Mary and Diana.
While that allowed me to begin with few expectations, it also made reading The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter a rather overwhelming experience.
The central narrative of The Strange Case has its own charms—and even if you aren’t bowled over by the premise, you will appreciate how carefully Goss weaves her mystery, through conversations, letters, and other clues left behind.
But she also dedicated long chapters to unwinding each character’s origin story. And while I would normally love this, with so many people from so many novels competing for my attention, I sometimes felt disoriented—and that made me love a few characters but feel neutral towards the rest.
But Goss knows her way around a good story
Rich with detail and dialogue, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter would be perfectly at home on a shelf filled with Victorian literature.
While Goss’ writing can feel heavy-handed at times—though Catherine is the group’s resident novelist, her style lacks romance, and in-universe, the whole novel is written by her—she is clear and purposeful with her word choices.
But what sets the novel apart is how all throughout Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Justine, and Catherine interrupt to contest the way their stories are told.
Personally, I was on the fence about this; sometimes, the asides disrupted the flow, while other times, they were a welcome respite from blocks of paragraphs. But whether or not I liked them, one thing I learned to do was appreciate them.
But in the end, it’s the characters that shine
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a hardworking, ambitious book. With an intricate plot, filled with twists and turns, it’s meant to keep you riveted the whole way through. However, it wasn’t the plot that kept me going, but the young women whose stories I wanted to know.
Considering the depth and breadth of the novel, Goss handles each character’s story with care and respect. But I wish she had stretched this book into a series, with Mary meeting Diana in the first novel, Beatrice in the sequel, and so forth. Learning each character’s stories, quirks, and habits little by little would have allowed me to love each one in their own time. Instead, there often was too much to read, and not enough space in my head for it to sink in.
This is a book you must make time for
When I finally finished reading The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, I felt… somewhat dissatisfied. I knew there was something more lurking beneath the surface, but I hadn’t been able to grasp it.
Which was why, one week later, I gave the book another chance… and surprisingly, enjoyed it much more the second time around. I even made space in my heart for characters I hadn’t liked the first time.
If you’re looking for a book to read between dips in the pool and long naps, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter isn’t it. It’s the type of book you set aside time for—a book made for long train or plane rides and quiet afternoons in cafes. It might take a while for you to get into it; you might not like it right away, or at all. But it’s definitely worth the work—and I’m already waiting for the sequel.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles.
Katya is a member of the First Look Club. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]