This is a review of the sequel to 2017’s the Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter. You can read my review of that first book here. Please note that the following review might contain minor spoilers for its predecessor.
“If something goes wrong, give a signal of some sort – wave a handkerchief out the window, for example. They will contact me, and I will contact Sigmund to get you out. Hannah and I will work on a plan to rescue Lucinda. Our best bet is probably blackmailing one of the guards … Don’t worry,” she said as they all sat around the table, worrying. “We’ll figure it out. We always do.”
European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is the second installment of Theodora Goss’s series The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. I was an unreserved fan of the first book, the Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and dove into this book eagerly.
To a great extent this book is a perfect successor, carrying the legacy of the first book’s accomplishments in Victorian style.
Readers will instantly recognize the setting, the premise, the pace, and the unique narrative styling established in previous works (both the Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and the short story The Mad Scientist’s Daughter before it). Three months have passed since the close of the Athena Club’s first adventure, and life at 11 Park Terrace has proceeded smoothly. However, none of the ladies of the Athena Club have forgotten their main mission – to liberate other female victims of mad scientists, and to stop the Societe des Alchimistes. Along the way, they encounter many characters from history and literature (being characters adapted from science fiction and horror themselves), and as before these guests are charming, complex, faithful additions that flesh out Goss’s world and advance her story.
This adventure takes the Athena Club well outside Britain, challenging the boundaries of some while giving others a rare opportunity to return home. Goss explores the logistical challenges of European travel clearly and authentically, incorporating social and technological roadblocks women of the time would have faced while making each challenge feel authentic and dynamic. Goss neither slows the pace of her characters’ adventure nor stops to preach about the historical setting. That is, of course, unless her characters do.
As in the first book, the narrative is explored concurrently along two timelines. In the main timeline, Catherine serves as our narrator as she writes the story of the Athena Club for publication. The other ladies of the club (as well as Alice and Mrs. Poole, who run Mary’s household) interrupt Catherine’s narrative as she’s writing it. Their commentary is often colorful, offering criticisms of Catherine’s narrative choices, quibbling about how they recall events, and critiquing the world around them.
Justine: “Catherine, I seem to remember that Greta and I were speaking in French.”
Catherine: “If you want this section to be in French, you’ll have to write it yourself.”
“Perhaps I shall tell you another time how I learned where the Emperor keeps his handkerchief!” said Greta, in French …
In the Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, the ladies’ interjections provided charming commentary and offered Goss a beautiful mechanism to play with foreshadowing and character development alike. In addition, Goss uses this as an opportunity to explore the historical setting in general and the advancement of women’s rights in particular. Goss uses these interjections similarly in her second book, but they feel less elegant, more heavy-handed this time. I found myself skimming their interruptions more than once, and even rolling my staunchly feminist eyes at some of the comments about women’s dress liberation. However, that does even out as the book progresses and in the end it did not impact my enjoyment of or immersion in the story.
Another change that really struck me is that Mary and Catherine both feel like much crueler characters in this book, and as I paged through the narrative I was increasingly perplexed by this change in their fundamental characters. If I ever had a chance to speak to Theodora Goss, this is what I’d ask her about.
Aside from that, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is another striking accomplishment in Victorian adventure and mystery. Goss got everything right about the adventure, and her setting explores period Europe bravely and entertainingly. I cannot stress enough how amazed I am by the seamless way she represented real-world (or at least authentic, if fictional) challenges women would have faced when crossing Europe (particularly without men) at that time.
I sincerely hope Goss continues this series another 40 years. 20 books, 50 books(!), would not be enough to sate my want for more stories of the Athena Club.