The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss (book review)
GENRE: YA Sci-fi
LENGTH: 400 pages
PLOT Five monstrous girls who are the creations of a secret society of alchemists (the Société des Alchimites) team up to learn more about the nefarious group.
Mary is the de facto leader of the monster girls. It's a role she's well suited for as she's organized and level headed. Diana is Mary's sister. She's the bratty troublemaker of the group though her skills prove useful. Bianca is a sweet, intelligent soul. She didn't stand out a lot to me, though. Catherine was one of my two favorites. She is fierce and, like me, a writer. She also had the most compelling backstory about which I could read a whole novel in itself. Finally, the pious Justine is my second favorite because she was so pure of heart. The girls individually all had their strengths that made them assets to one another. I liked how each character brought something of value to the group.
A large part of what made me want to pick this novel up was the idea of a group of friends on an adventure together. I definitely got that but the group was often split into factions. Also, in my personal opinion, some of their chemistry was just missing a tad. I blame this on an issue with pacing that I'll touch on in the next section.
If you're a fan of the classic sci-fi and mystery stories then I imagine this book will give you good goosebumps. Famous characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are prominently featured. All of the main characters are the children/creations of other famous characters such as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (from which this novel takes its name), Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau (from The Island of Dr. Moreau), and Giacomo Rappaccini (from Rappaccini's Daughter). Given the age range this book series is geared towards, I suspect it may be a lot of readers' first experience with these characters. Indeed, I was entirely unfamiliar with the likes of Moreau and Rappaccini and claim no great knowledge of the others. Books like this can not only make those who already love these characters and their stories giddy but also introduce a new generation to them which is awesome. The closest thing I can compare this idea to is something Disney did a few years back in which they took their villains and made a television movie trilogy about their children (it was called Descendants).
The novel is told from the (mostly) third person perspective of the characters. The narrative primarily focuses on Mary. When new main characters are introduced and when they are separated the narrative splits. Something unusual about how this book is written is within the story itself we are told the novel is being written by the character Catherine (often called Cat). The narrative is frequently interrupted by the thoughts/opinions of the various characters (which according to the story Cat has left in for the reader). This is a choice by Goss that I suspect will very much irk some readers who are taken out of the story by these interruptions. I don't mind them for that reason. Rather, I didn't like them because they serve to decrease the stakes. How can I be worried about the fate of a certain character when I know they're fine because they're commenting throughout the novel (we know as the reader that these comments take place after the events of the novel itself)?
The concept itself of having a character be the 'novelist' of the story is one I really like as a writer myself. It also gave me some nostalgic feelings because it reminded me of the way Bunnicula by James and Deborah Howe is written (as though the family dog Harold is the writer). I wish more authors went this route when telling stories.
The novel takes place over just a couple of days. We're lead to believe the five girls all became an inseparable family during this brief period. This idea just felt too forced, especially given how they aren't even together for the whole novel. It seems to me Mary's loneliness was a major contributing factor more than actually caring for the girls themselves as to why she wanted to them to be a family. One thing that did assist in the building of their relationships was the previously mentioned commentary inserted into the narrative. This gives the reader glimpses into their lives post the novel's events and includes their banter and bickering.
The novel is both the story of the girls' learning about the secret Société des Alchimites as well as the story of how they came together. All of the girls' introductions fit well into the plot because they each served as a clue/fount of information on the Société. However, the plot did pause for each girl to recount their history. It was sort of like reading a story within a story. People like me who enjoy character development probably won't mind, but those who are more interested in the rest of the story may be frustrated by the distraction.
Something I look for in books is when they hop genres. This can help them appeal to wider audiences. Indeed, I am a sci-fi skeptic but found myself enjoying this book. This one is part sci-fi, part historical fiction, and part mystery. It manages to mesh them all effortlessly together. The novel also had great atmosphere, too. I was immersed into this historical, dreary, and sinister version of London. No matter what your interest you're likely to find something that you like here. For instance, for me it was the uncovering of the mystery of the Société.
FINAL THOUGHTS I'd recommend this book to someone who enjoys historical adventure books with a touch of magic such as the Montague Siblings books by Mackenzi Lee (which is a trilogy of companion novels). I fully intend to continue on with this series because it nailed the atmosphere and I liked the genre bending and (at least the idea of) the writing style. The ending of the novel also set up a really promising sequel. I'm hopeful we'll get to see more of the characters' dynamics in the sequel because there just wasn't enough time with them all together in this novel.
FINAL RATING: 4⭐️