Read June 2021
★ ★ 1/2
To be blunt, this was a chore. Though the premise was intriguing–the female children of some of book-history’s most villainous men come together as a Society–the execution made it an exercise in perseverance.
But that core idea–so clever! Take the idea of female=uncontrolled=wild=nature=monster, band them together, give them a mission, and surround them with both real and literary figures. But there’s a constant interruption of meta elements, which proves tiresome. The story is ostensibly written by Catherine, one of the young women, as a means of earning money for the group. It is frequently interrupted with discussions among the characters about how they might be portrayed, or objections to what is being shared. Vaguely amusing at the start, it becomes significantly less so the fourth or fifth time it happens. By the time we reach the penultimate scenes, it’s annoying.
“DIANA: I wasn’t petulant! I’m never petulant. What does that mean, anyway? I think you made that word up. Are writers allowed to do that?
MARY: I am certainly perturbable! Catherine, you’re describing me as though I were some sort of female Sherlock Holmes, which I am not, thank you very much.
DIANA: That’s not such a bad comparison, actually. You’re as annoying as he is…
After our previous adventures, Joe had agreed to spy for our heroines. And if those heroines keep interrupting me, this story will never get started.”
Even more significantly, the pace is wildly uneven, veering back and forth between action and florid detail of who was thinking what, at what time. While the action merits some attention, there’s a level of detail that is truly unnecessary. For instance, take the appearance of a dog whistle:
“It is a common dog whistle,’ said Beatrice. ‘I borrowed it from the Count’s groom, who uses it to signal the wolfdogs. They were first invented by Sir Francis Galton to determine the range of hearing in human beings and animals. Human ears cannot hear it–as the rest of you saw, Mary was not affected at all. But those of a dog can–or a cat, or a vampire. A cat can hear sounds higher than a dog, and a vampire, I conjecture, can hear even higher. We can use it to distract and disable [redacted]. But those of you with particularly acute hearing will have to carry India-rubber earplugs to protect yourself from its sound.”
And this is why it’s a 700 page book: there’s two (plus) extra sentences for every paragraph. Yikes. Trying to pick my words carefully here, I’d say that this might appeal to the sort of reader that likes a lot of detail but minimum effort. But what about the clever allusions, the reviewer wonders? Doesn’t Goss introduces us to a historical figure that provides a bit of free psychological profiling of two of our heroines? Doesn’t that require inference? Oh, but it is spelled out shortly after, reader. In case we missed the conclusion, one of the other characters clarifies it. It’s like that all the way through, and I think that, in part, accounts for a lot of the feeling of disinterest.
What’s good? Goss is not incompetent with her words. The setting was well-realized. A fair amount of things happen, so despite the leisurely pace, it’s not precisely boring. I still love the concept, and the idea of these young women growing in their self-knowledge and owning their own power is a fabulous idea. I like the idea of ‘science’ playing a role. There’s a fair amount of diversity, and attention to class differences. If you can let go of the meta, it’s kind of fun to have guest appearances from famous historical figures brought into the story.
I’d say it’s boilerplate 1890s-ish supernatural with two things setting it apart. One, Girrrl-Power. Two, the idea that Dr. Moreau, Dr. Hyde, Van Helsing and many others are all members of an Alchemical Society that is dedicated to advancing knowledge and mankind through ‘scientific principles.’ And since it’s 1890 (ish), no one has exactly discovered a code of ethics, and who is easier to experiment on than children?
Still, there’s no excuse for 700 pages, unless Goss was trying to write Jonathan Strange for the young/new-adult set? Now that I think about it…