SOMETIMES WE HAVE TO choose whether to reach for a thought-provoking, literary novel or a compulsive page-turner. Sometimes, the skill of the author is such that we don’t have to choose. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, the debut novel by award-winning fantasy author Theodora Goss, is one such example. It offers a compelling blend of 19th-century creations — including such popular favorites as Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein’s monster — with a bona fide murder mystery reminiscent of the Jack the Ripper case. Yet, while delivering a rollicking tale of adventure, it also has something important to say about women and monsters. The novel’s acknowledgments page gives insight into Goss’s intent: “This novel began as a question I asked myself while writing my doctoral dissertation: Why did so many of the mad scientists in nineteenth-century narratives create, or start creating but then destroy, female monsters?”

The 19th-century works the author draws upon include Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844). In Goss’s sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (released this July), a much-hinted-at connection with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is explored as well. And, of course, there is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In Goss’s alternate universe, these literary works are based on fact: Sherlock Holmes and Watson are real people, and much of the story is recounted via Mary Jekyll, daughter of the recently deceased doctor. What could have been a gimmick is used in ways that are by turns ingenious and amusing; at one point, a character says to Holmes, “I know who you are, although I am behind in my reading. I thought you had perished at Reichenbach Falls.”

The Alchemist’s Daughter makes us aware from the start that it is no ordinary thriller. That’s because, right from the start, the central female characters — monstrous creations born from 19th-century literature — begin commenting on the text as it is being written by one of the characters, Catherine Moreau (daughter of another dead doctor). This setup accomplishes a variety of things; for example, it removes a certain element of suspense — we know that these characters, imperiled though they are in the course of the novel, will survive, since they’ve lived to comment on the tale. In keeping with the self-aware nature of the narration, the characters comment even on this:

DIANA: “I don’t think you’re supposed to say that we solved the murders.”

MARY: “Well, of course we solved them, eventually. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be writing about them, would we? But how did we solve them and what happened to us along the way? That’s the real story.”

As it turns out, even Mary doesn’t know the real story — which, being that she is inside it, makes sense. How the murders are solved is, of course, important, because one of Goss’s priorities is entertainment. She is masterful at weaving a mystery plot, carefully maintaining and later resolving key threads. (The threads left open in the first book are rigorously resolved in Monstrous Gentlewoman.) But the real story is about the women at the core of the tale, whose distinct and vivid personalities depict a wide range of roles. Even a story that features Sherlock Holmes in full action-hero mode still manages to relegate him to the status of accomplice rather than protagonist. That central role is divided among the story’s women, each of whom is a full-bodied personality in her own right. The enemy they confront is a rogue band of men in an international secret society — the Société des Alchimistes — which includes the fathers who made them into monsters. Disturbingly, this society views young girls as ideal experimental subjects because they are allegedly more malleable to transformation.

These women must contend with the monstrous bodies they’ve been given, in most cases against their will, by men acting on ideological impulse. As each of the “monstrous” women is introduced, she is given a space to tell her story — including how she came to be a monster. So, for example, Justine Moritz tells what really happened to that character in Mary Shelley’s novel: she was created by Viktor Frankenstein to appease Adam, the scientist’s original creation. Justine’s story is particularly affecting: a gentle, devoutly religious woman given to reading philosophy, she is created to be Adam’s slave, and is subjected to domestic violence. Justine’s narrative is written in a different voice from that of Catherine Moreau, who in turn sounds different from Beatrice Rappaccini.

Their stories — of women as monsters — are fraught with difficulty. Pain — whether physical, emotional, or both — is a hallmark of nearly all of them. Yet, while the traumas are deep, they are not presented as insurmountable. Catherine Moreau is marked by physical scars from her transformation, but she is also one of the most intrepid and adventurous of the protagonists. Ultimately these heroines join together to form the Athena Club. “Readers who remember their classical mythology,” Goss writes, “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.” And, if these women are to come to terms with who they are, there must be a reckoning with this parentage.

Goss doesn’t allow any of her women to be ciphers, even though there are so many of them. The housekeeper of Mary Jekyll, Mrs. Poole, and Holmes’s famous Mrs. Hudson are presented with their own backstories. The former reveals a number of hidden talents as the books progress: she not only provides support for the adventures of the Athena Club but also participates in the investigations. Even the murdered prostitutes in The Alchemist’s Daughter — a standard trope of mysteries set in 19th-century London — are given dimension and value.

The book’s feminism takes many forms, often subtle. One is the theme of women and money (or lack of it), which brings to mind the writings of Virginia Woolf. The inciting incident of the novel is Mary’s attempt to grapple with unpaid bills: she follows a lead she hopes will allow her to find Mr. Hyde, who is wanted for murder — thereby earning the reward for his capture. Far from a traditional bounty hunter, she needs the money to pay the butcher. The practicalities of earning a living turn out to be important. When at last the women come together under one roof, each has a unique method of earning her keep, in accord with her talents. Catherine, the novelist, breaks the fourth wall occasionally to advertise her work: in Monstrous Gentlewoman, she makes sure her readers know that Alchemist’s Daughter is currently on sale in London for two shillings. The Athena Club is financially self-sustaining, resistant to male assistance as a point of principle. And, while romance might be in the cards for some of the characters, the theme is treated with gentle humor rather than being seen as the central current of a woman’s life.

Goss also reminds us how much domestic labor is necessary to support a life of adventure. The details of what needs to be cleaned and cooked are never far in the background. In one wonderful exchange, Mrs. Poole laments the destruction of her parlor, to which Mary replies:

We were trying to capture the masked men who had shot at the Prince […] And when we got back, we had to take care of Prince Rupert, who had fainted on the sofa. I’m sorry — we would have cleaned it up the next morning.

Mrs. Poole shoots back: “In my day, young ladies had nothing to do with masked men, or princes, or madcap chases through the streets. I can’t stop you from having these adventures, but I insist on keeping a decent house.”

The women’s adventures, which begin in London, expand in the sequel to Vienna, the Orient Express, a traveling circus, and Budapest. New characters are introduced, perhaps most memorably Irene Adler, who ends up being more than a match for Holmes in complexity and intellect. I found myself willing to follow these women anywhere, eager to see how they work together and apart, and to hear their voices. What seems clear is that, while these women might be monsters, their concerns are the same as those of any woman trying to find her place in the world. And that might be the point.

¤

Ilana Teitelbaum is the author of Last Song Before Night and Fire Dance, under the pen name Ilana C. Myer.