The Nebula award will be announced May 19, 2018, at this year’s Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Since 1965, the Nebula Awards have been given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year’s award. This post is the fourth in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Nebula award for best novel. The other nominees are Jade City by Fonda Lee, Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory, Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (which I reviewed for the Philip K. Dick award), and Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.
“Spectacular cases are usually simpler, and less interesting, than they initially appear.”
My love affair with this book began in 2014, when I stumbled upon it in the short story collection The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. Though the anthology contains a number of truly excellent short stories, it was Theodora Goss’s “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” that struck me, and I carried it with me in the years that followed. Much of my reading through 2015 and 2016 was inspired by Goss’s short story. Imagine my delight, then, when I saw that Goss was expanding on “The Mad Scientist’s Daughter” for The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter in 2017.
With eager hands and hungry eyes I tore into this book, ready to devour it at unmatched speed. But I couldn’t. For all its humor and all its fantastic premise, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is stunningly beautiful.
On the surface, this story brings together the daughters of literature’s most read (and most fearsome) mad scientists in a journey of self-discovery and salvation – beginning when Mary Jekyll discovers Diana, the daughter of Hyde. The story that unfolds is part science fiction, part action, part comedy; if that’s all The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter had been, I would have been satisfied. But it’s not. In expanding on her initial short story, Goss brought to it whole new dimensions.
The book is written along a few different narrative timelines. The main story of how these women came together (and saved themselves from numerous horrible plights) is wrapped in another narrative – as the women themselves sit together and heckle one of their number who is writing the story we’re reading. Somehow this story-within-a-story manages to be incredibly charming, and showcases dimensions of each of the characters involved in addition to both enhancing the dramatic tension and providing comedic relief.
Through and through this is a delightful read. One of its great strengths is the way Goss has married this action-packed modern tale with Victorian-era fantastical literature. Other pastiches of this kind (not that I’ve read many, I’ll admit) might be as evocative of the genre they’re emulating, but Goss’s work goes much farther: invoking that work directly to bring the power, the weight, the cultural relevance, and the mystery/horror of her referenced material into this new piece, which engages with its audience in a thoroughly modern way.
Similarly, Goss strikes a powerful balance between cultural sensibilities of the period and women’s liberation, creating an earnestly feminist piece that never stoops so low as to preach. Simply, the women in this book are complete, well-rounded, individual women, and their agency as full characters is empowering. Internally, they struggle with (and within) the confines of the role women are relegated to in Victorian England, doing what they can to survive in what is definitively a man’s world.
The “meta” quotient of this book is real high, and I was very concerned that things like the appearance of Sherlock and Watson would take this book into full “kitsch” territory, rendering it unreadable. Thankfully, Goss remains well aware of (and well away from) that fine line. Sherlock and Watson are invoked respectfully and to great effect. Beyond that, all the main characters are aware of their ignominious parentage, and the relationships each has with her father’s work and legacy lends fascinating depth to each character individually as well as to the world as a whole.
“That was the first meeting of the Athena Club. … Readers who remember their classical mythology will immediately realize its significance: Athena, born from the head of her father, Zeus. We do not claim the wisdom of Athena, but we identify with her dubious parentage.”
Each of this book’s main characters is Goss’s creation to some degree. As she explained on Goodreads.com,
“I’ve definitely changed the original stories, in part because in the originals, all the women die. My assumption is that they didn’t, so I have to explain how they survived, and how their “real” stories are different than you might read in the original books. As for the characters, Beatrice is pretty well characterized in Hawthorne’s short story, so I’m really reinterpreting her and adding details. But Catherine doesn’t really exist as Catherine in Wells’s story: she’s just an anonymous puma woman. Justine isn’t even created–Frankenstein decides not to animate her after all. And Mary and Diana, I added to Stevenson’s story. So it depends on the characters. I have, at a minimum, reinterpreted what is there in the originals. I kind of needed to, because the female characters weren’t the focus of any of these stories–even Beatrice’s story, which is named after her, is entirely from the perspective of Giovanni, the young man who falls in love with her. I figured, if she told it, the story would sound different …”
Of all Goss’s interpretations, her version of Justine’s story is far and away my favorite. I can’t say more without breaking my rule re: spoilers, but I think a small part of me is forever changed by reading Justine’s story and I’m grateful to Goss for that.