The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.

 

 

 

 

Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.

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Pub Day Excitement: Stone in the Skull

Weee, it’s pub day for one of my favorite authors!

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Stone in the Skull lives in the same universe as the Eternal Sky trilogy, but takes place over in the Lotus Kingdoms, where a few of the supporting characters either come from or have lived.  I’m super exicted that  Elizabeth Bear chose to expand this universe and write more!

September Library Checkouts

I felt like a read a fair amount this month, but my library checkouts were relatively low.  I also read some ARCs, and try to throw in some stuff off the “purchased” pile.  Here’s what I (can remember that I) checked out.

 

The Reluctant Queen, by Sara Beth Durst

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The Strange Case of the Alchemists’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

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Prudence, by Gail Carriger (overdrive audiobook)

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An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir (overdrive audiobook)

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The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

The world of Renthia is a terrifying place.  Beautiful, but terrifying.  Daleina, who lived through an attack by spirits as a child, knows this better than nearly anyone, and has dedicated her life to making sure that what happened to her village never happens to anyone in Renthia again.  Spirits–air, water, ice, wood, fire, and earth–are what make the world live, but they are also the forces of death and destruction, and keeping the balance is the queen’s responsibility.

So what happens when the queen’s strength seems to be slipping?

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the ways in which it doesn’t bow to conventional narrative.  The main character, Daleina, is not the best at everything, does not succeed in every venture and go on to save the day because of it.  She’s a complicated character, to be sure, and it is the ways in which she responds to the actions of others that drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged with her quest to not only succeed at the academy, but to become an heir to the crown of Renthia and serve her people, in her own way.

The narrative is at times merely workmanlike, the consistent point of view of Daleina occasionally overly navel gazing, but more often than not the very imagination at the heart of the story is stunning and part of an overall feeling of simultaneous dread and wonder.  This is a novel that doesn’t skirt the dangerous aspects of its fantasy elements, or couch the narrative in heroic imagery to such a degree that the reader is removed from the immediacy of harm.  The fact that Daleina is part of a close-knit group, rather than the competent loner women protagonists often end up being, means that violence or tragedy cut doubly–the terror of an attack and the loss of a friend.

Ultimately, imagination and strong group dynamics carry the narrative, and make it an engrossing read.  It has aspects of found family and the draw of having a magical academy as the main setting for Daleina’s story, with fun additions of the loner-mentor and a more casual approach to romantic relationships than is often seen in stories utilizing the “pre-modern” society standard.  The novel does suffer a little from the “assumed white” manner of describing characters, where the skin color of a new character is given more attention if it is not white (though Durst includes not just the white-to-brown spectrum of Earth, but shades of green as well).

 

The Tuesday List: Our Fanged Foes (or Friends)

Wee, it’s another edition of The Tuesday List, this time featuring books about vampires.  They’re not all spooky, or literary, or alt-worldy, but they’re all enjoyable.  Maybe you’ll find your next Halloween read, or maybe just your next obsession.

  1. The Quick, by Lauren Owen

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This novel had a serious Dickensian feel, a cramped, dark, dirty London inhabited by criminals, urchins, and the occasional mysterious other.  The quick refer to the living, fodder for the undead, who occupy a much greater circle of society than the uninitiated could ever imagine.

2. The Historian

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A Dracula story for the modern age?  Perhaps.  But the quest, the obsession of the historian predates modernity, and it is one woman’s harrowing journey into the past through old letters and documents, that brings this story to light.  A good tale, for those used to the smell of dust and old books.

3. Certain Dark Things

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A post-apocalyptic vampire novel, you ask?  Well, yes, in a matter of speaking.  But the apocalypse has happened to the vampires, not because of them, and this is the tale of one particular Aztec vampire just trying to make her way in a Mexico City hostile to her kind, avoid being murdered by a rival vampire species, and maybe meet a nice boy who can be her food source and companion for a while.

4. Prudence

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Irreverence leads in the fashion-conscious and nibbly bits-obsessed novels of Gail Carriger, and Prudence, her latest foray into the alternate steampunk universe of dirigibles, vampires, and shapeshifters, is no different.  This is a romp if there ever was one, this time through Bombay and the forests of India, on a quest for tea and justice for all the supernaturals in Queen Victoria’s empire.

5. Sunshine

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I needed one more book to make a nice round five, and thought to myself, self, you could pick one by a dude that you’ve read, or you could take a heartfelt recommendation from people you trust.  So I went with Sunshine, which was loved by both Ana and Renay at Fangirl Happy Hour.  You can listen to their discussion of it here.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

What will you do, when the inevitable catastrophe hits?  Will you cower, will you go out to help people, will you take advantage?  The empire has procedure in place for all of these things, and more.  They are very prepared, you’ll find, for any eventuality.  Because this has happened before, and it will happen again.  The earth will move, the ground shatter, the volcanoes erupt, people will die.  But some will live.

The Fifth Season takes on a lot of heavy topics and, by and large, handles them well.  The enslavement of one group of people based on a particular trait they all share is the main focus of this novel, but the hidden history of a world controlled by a powerful bureaucracy is another.  The empire in which Syenite has grown up is one in which everyone knows their place.  It’s written in their names, which consist of designators for the community they live in and the kind of service they render to that community.  Unless they’re an orogene, in which case their black uniform gives all the information others need about them.  And then their are the guardians, highly respected, but possibly much more dangerous than an orogene could be.

Guardians are the slavemasters, the groomers, those given power to take innocent children and turn them into tools for the supposed good of the state.  Essun believes she has escaped all this, or would like to believe it.  But she has grown up in this empire and perhaps knew all along that it could not last.  Nothing lasts, in the Stillness.

That is, of course, a false statement, and yet it isn’t.  The empire is perpetual, but in the way that all empires are: through convincing its subjects that it is so.  Syenite thought she had come to terms with the Empire, until she was brought together with Alabaster for a very special mission, and learns that all is not as she has always believed.

And amidst it all is the end of the world.  Jemisin has achieved new depths to her narrative style with The Fifth Season, combining not only multiple viewpoints and an ability to tell a compelling story out of order, but also telling the story of the world itself in addition to that of the people in it.  The Fifth Season is a visceral reminder that we are only the sum of the stories we tell, and that that can change in an instant.  So, what would you do, at the end of the world?