The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter


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

June 2017, Saga Press, HC, 416pp. ISBN 978-1-4814-6650-9. $24.99 US/$33.99 CAN. Cover illustration by Kate Forrester. Art direction by Krista Vossen.

Theodora Goss is an award-winning writer of short stories. It should not be surprising, then, that her debut novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, is an enormously accomplished delight of a book. Playful, serious, possessed of great affection for the works with which it is in dialogue even as it critiques them, its deft prose and amused self-awareness of itself as a narrative — its meta-narrative properties — create an extraordinary reading experience.

(I suppose this is as good a place as any to admit I was pretty much blown away.)

The novel opens with Mary Jekyll, daughter of the (supposed) late Dr. Jekyll, at the funeral of her recently-deceased mother, her last surviving parent. With Mary’s mother’s death, Mary is left without income, and must not only let her servants go, but try to figure out how to earn some money. When an item among her mother’s papers leads her to believe she might be able to find the location of Hyde — wanted as a murderer, for whom a significant reward was once offered — she sets out to discover him, and instead finds herself in the middle of a set of interlocking mysteries, and in the orbit of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Who is murdering prostitutes in London and taking their bodyparts? What is the mysterious SA? What did become of Hyde, and did Jekyll really die?

In the course of her quest, she discovers a younger half-sister, the unself-conscious, rude, and strangely endearing Diana Hyde. She also finds more women, all of whose “fathers” were involved in experimenting upon them: Beatrice Rappaccini, a young woman whose very breath is poison; Catherine Moreau, a young woman who is part cat, created by Dr. Moreau’s experiments; and Justine Frankenstein, a woman who looks young but who, reanimated after her first death by Dr. Frankenstein, has lived for nearly a century without ageing. Together, they learn that their putative fathers all belonged to an organisation calling itself the Société des Alchimistes, an organisation devoted to the transmutation of human life into more “advanced” forms. Members of the Société des Alchimistes are involved in the London murders. And their investigations bring danger to their doorstep…

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter really loves its inspirations. It is delightedly invested in playing with, reworking and re-interpreting, the fantastic literature of the 19th century, and interested in 19th-century London and rookeries. Its murders echo the most infamous unsolved murders of history, and it’s easy to see that Goss is playing with ideas of memory and narrative, myth and monstrousness. This concern with memory and narrative is brought to the fore in the device that makes the novel an innovative delight: the novel is being written by one of the characters as a novelisation of “true events,” while every so often others interject to correct her. Thus the narrative’s reliability (or lack of it) and objectivity (or lack of it) is constantly before the reader’s attention. Goss is playing with constructed nature of narrative, with the idea of narrator as agent. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is directly in dialogue with its inspirations in both structural terms as well as in terms of the characters that Goss is reworking here.

And what characters they are! Goss gives each a vivid life and personality, vivid histories: they are all complete individuals, distinct in themselves, from devoutly religious Justine to relatively amoral Diana, and from practical Mary to Catherine, who has a flair for the dramatic. (I think my favourite may be the very pragmatic housekeeper Mrs Poole, whose concern for the proprieties stops short entirely when the proprieties get in the way of something important, like a rescue.)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is an energetic book, elegantly written, with a twisty structure that is nonetheless easy to follow. It’s also a novel that makes me want to chew on its themes, and to read the works by which it has been directly influenced — I feel as though I missed at least half the references. But despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed myself: it’s a brilliant novel. You should definitely read it.


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Sleeps With Monsters: Thorns and Wings and Dragons

A new column over at

Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Binding Thorns and Michelle Sagara’s Cast in Flight don’t, on the surface, have much in common. One is a gothic, atmospheric novel of treachery and politics set in a decaying Paris, deeply interested in the politics of family and community and colonialism; while the other is a second-world urban fantasy novel starring a beat cop whose fun, light voice conceals some deeper thematic concerns with class and privilege, growing up and belonging.


A new review over at

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final novel in Marie Brennan’s acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following last year’s Labyrinth of Drakes. And if you thought Labyrinth of Drakes was good, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a pure treat: I think I can say that at least as far as I’m concerned, Brennan definitely saved the best till last.



My first research client seems to have been satisfied!

Sleeps With Monsters: Katabasis and Anabasis

A new column over at

Katabasis and anabasis are the words that come to mind when it comes to Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost and Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, books which I read back-to-back. They share some similarities—they are both about young bisexual women discovering the truth of their worlds and learning to claim and use their power, political or otherwise, and they’re both marketed as YA—but they are very different books.

Sleeps With Monsters: Thoughts on the 2017 Hugo Awards Ballot

A new column over at

This year is a historic one for the Hugo Awards in more ways than one. In addition to the changes to the awards process, this is the first year in which the Best Novel nominees have been so completely devoid in white men. It may also be the first year in which more than one out trans author received a Best Novel nomination for their work.



The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1: Neglected Authors, by Matthew Wright. Bloomsbury Academic. London 2016.

I came across Matthew Wright’s The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy as a result of an article in The Guardian back in November of last year. It sounded both accessible and really interesting as a treatment of tragedy that spent a lot more time on the context of the texts and fragments we have left than is usual for treatments of Greek literature — especially treatments that might appeal to a non-specialist. In consequence, I treated myself to a copy in the gift-giving season of the year. Fortunately, it turns out that it really is both accessible and interesting.

There are thirty-two surviving complete plays of Greek tragedy, written by the three “classic” tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This classic trio also comprise the majority of the extant fragments. These playwrights were active in Athens in the 5th century BCE, but they were far from the only tragedians to be at work in this period. There were dozens active from the late sixth down into the fourth centuries, who wrote hundreds of plays — perhaps more than a thousand — and saw them performed in front of Athenian audiences. But of these hundreds, only a handful of fragments survives.

This is in part because the canonisation of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides began in the fourth century BCE, when it is recorded that an Athenian politician, Lycurgus son of Lycophron, basically arranged that this trio should be commemorated as the Athenian state tragedians, with bronze statues, official texts preserved in the state archives, and a ban on deviating from the standard texts in any performance of an Aeschylian, Sophoclean, or Euripidean tragedy. It might be in part for other reasons, too.

Wright is interested in the process by which texts become lost, and by which some texts become more lost than others. He’s interested in what kinds of evidence exist for the lost tragedies, and how that evidence can be used to illuminate ancient Greek tragedy as a genre that extended beyond the canonical trio of authors. He’s also interested in examining the evidence for the development of tragedy as a genre over the course of roughly two centuries, from its inception down to the start of the Hellenistic period.

The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1 is divided into six chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, Wright sets out his methodological approach very clearly, outlining the caution with which he’s approaching the gaps between the evidence, and describes what he’s setting out to do in very accessible language. (This striking readability is a continuing feature of this volume, and an extremely welcome one.)

The first chapter is devoted to the earliest tragedians, playwrights whose work, in some cases, was lost almost as soon as it was performed. Wright is careful with his arguments, and clear in discussing the evidence and the flaws with the evidence.

The sixth chapter, which I will take here out of order, discusses the “very lost” — tragedians and works of whom nothing is known but their names, and sometimes not even that; names that might be the names of tragedians, fragmentary inscriptions, and so on.

The other chapters discuss playwrights of whom, at worst, something can be said. The second chapter deals with fifth-century tragedians; the fifth chapter, with fourth-century ones (including Dionysus, the ruler of fourth-century Syracuse). The third chapter discusses Agathon, who shows up as a character in Plato’s Symposium, and who might be the best-known non-canonical tragedian, while the fourth chapter is concerned with tragedians who are related to other tragedians, since there seems to have been something of a tradition of theatre as a family business.

Wright concludes with a brief epilogue in which he discusses the apparent continuities in tragedy as a genre on down into the late fourth century, followed by an appendix which collects all the fragments of the non-canonical tragedians in English translation.

This is a really solid and engaging piece of work on ancient Greek tragedy. I found it fascinating, and I think it might have wide appeal.

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