In addition to winning the Locus Award for Best First Novel, Theodora Goss’s debut, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, made the list of Nebula Award finalists. It’s garnered a great deal of praise, and given Goss’s track record as an award-winning author of short fiction, that should come as no surprise.
In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll, daughter of the infamous Dr. Jekyll, follows a thread of mystery in her mother’s will that leads her to a younger sister (Diana Hyde), and to several other young women who were created as experiments in biological transmutation, including puma woman Catherine Moreaux, the literally poisonous Beatrice Rappacini, and living dead woman Justine Frankenstein. These young women, with the occasional assistance of Sherlock Holmes, learn that their “fathers” were members of a scientific organisation called the Societé des Alchimistes (SA), and that the SA are involved in the murder of poor young women—prostitutes—across London. Together, these young women uncover secrets, work for justice, and build themselves a new family—the Athena Club—with each other.
Goss has taken inspiration (and some characters) directly from 19th century pulp literature. In European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, she expands her scope—from London to Vienna and Budapest, and dashing train- and carriage-rides across middle Europe.
When Mary receives a letter from her former governess, Mina Murray, in Vienna, asking for her help, she and the other members of the Athena Club immediately start planning how to make it work on their restricted budgets. Miss Murray informs them that Lucinda Van Helsing’s father, a member of the SA, has been experimenting on her without any precautions, much less her consent. If they can bring Lucinda before the general meeting of the SA—to be held in Budapest very soon—there’s a chance that the president of this learned society will take their side and ban such experiments in biological transmutation. But soon after the letter comes a telegram: Lucinda has disappeared, thanks to her father’s machinations.
With a little financial aid from Sherlock Holmes and an introduction to his long-time correspondent Irene Norton (née Adler) in Vienna, Mary, Justine, and Diana set out for the continent, while Cat and Beatrice remain in London to investigate a couple of SA men associated with an asylum just outside the city.
In Vienna, Mary is confronted by a sophisticated, organised, vitally kind Irene, who has already discovered that Lucinda Van Helsing is being held in an asylum. With the assistance of Dr. Freud, they hatch a plan to have Diana committed to the asylum in order to make contact with Lucinda and perhaps help facilitate her escape.
With Lucinda rescued from the asylum, Mary and company set off for Budapest. But when no news comes of their arrival, Cat and Beatrice set out for the continent as members of a travelling circus. In the wilds of Austrian Styria, Mary and her companions come face-to-face with old adversaries, and find surprising allies. And that’s even before they reach Budapest to discover that Miss Mina Murray isn’t all that she seems, and to confront the worst elements of the Societé des Alchimistes on their own ground.
European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman does many of the things that delighted me about The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and adds some more. It continues with its strong sense of female solidarity, of kindness and support between women. It continues to play with 19th and early 20th century literature, this time including Dracula and Carmilla among the works that it re-imagines. (It’s utterly delightful to see Goss’s version of Carmilla and Laura, a practically married couple living happily in the Austrian countryside, and venturing forth to kick ass and take names.) And it continues the narrative conceit of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: the novel is written as though it were authored by Cat Moreaux, with occasional transcribed interjections by fellow members of the Athena Club. This playful meta-narrative discourse is part and parcel of Goss’s lively re-imagination of the pulp canon.
Though European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is a long book, clocking in at some 700 pages, it’s well-paced and enormously readable. Goss is an accomplished writer, whose characters come across as distinct and engaging individuals. I was utterly charmed here by her vision of a widowed Irene Norton with a much more organised set of girls as her equivalent of Holmes’ “Baker St. Irregulars,” an intelligence-gathering powerhouse who’s also really generous to these young women who’ve fetched up on her doorstep while trying to help out another young woman.
This is another fantastic book from an excellent writer. I enjoyed it greatly, and I’ll be looking forward to Goss’s next novel—not least because European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman ends with a cliffhanger.
European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is available from Saga Press.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, TENI , and the Abortion Rights Campaign.