Review: The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd. Balzer + Bray, 2013. Currently Available.

Genre: Gothic novel, Horror

Madman's DaughterFace Value: Meh. It’s not that this cover is inaccurate, it’s just a little…familiar. It looks like dozens of other covers with a girl in an old fashioned dress. It loses points, also, for the tagline “In the darkest of places, even love is deadly. Yeah, of course, there is a love story element to this book. But love is not at all the central focus of this horror show, and it is definitely not the most deadly part.

Does it Break the Slate? The most Slatebreaking element of this book is the overall concept – integrating a female voice into a known, completely male-centered story. Shepherd’s re-imagining of The Island of Dr. Moreau retells the story through the eyes of Juliet, the doctor’s daughter, and gives her a voice in this world. I love that – and I am thrilled that Shepherd plans to continue this series with reimaginings of Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On it’s own, Juliet is a Slatebreaking character up to a point – she is smart and determined and a survivor. However she is also frequently defined in the context of her relationship to men – her father’s daughter, romantic interest to either Edward or Montgomery. Juliet allows herself to be defined in relationship to these people.

Who would we give it to? If you’ve read the original story, or are familiar with traditional gothic novel tropes, you’ll really enjoy this one. Shepherd doesn’t shy away from the gothic element or the horror – it’s gruesome, but in a really well crafted way.

Review: Shepherd’s story starts in England, years after Dr. Moreau’s scandal has driven him out of the country. In this version, Moreau left behind a wife, and a daughter, Juliet. Mrs. Moreau became the mistress of  a wealthy man, but when she died Juliet is left alone, penniless. She finds a job, cleaning at the Kings College of Medical Research, but between poverty and scandal, it’s hard to imagine her own future. When one night she both seals her fate defending herself against a threatening doctor and discovers her father is still alive, she sets off to be reunited with him. Once there, she finds out the true horror of his experiments, and the depths of both his depravity and brilliance.

From a gothic novel standpoint, Shepherd does a great job of integrating a new narrative voice into a recognizable story and genre. She doesn’t shy away from the gruesome and she embraces the gothic world in which her story is set. I really enjoyed this element of the storytelling.

From a feminist point of view, as I mentioned earlier, the very idea of inserting a female voice into this male world is a fascinating one, and one that works really well. I welcomed Juliet’s voice into this world.  However, Juliet spends a large portion of the book in the unfortunate position of naïve innocent, asking questions of all the worldly men that surround her. Her horror at what she learns is certainly justified, but I would have liked to see her take more agency over her surroundings. The ending though, certainly opens up that possibility and I would be fascinated to learn what happened to her upon her return to “polite society”

The romance also fell a little flat for me. There’s a triangle set up from the start, between Montgomery, the servant who Juliet remembers from childhood and Edward, the mysterious stranger they rescue from a shipwreck. Both of these men hold an appeal to Juliet, and both have secrets of their own, of course. Though these reveals are satisfying, I was almost totally uninterested in either of them as a romantic lead.

But the more I think about it, I might be ok with these boilerplate romantic interests. It could easily be read as a style choice – that these men represent less of a dynamic characterization and more of an intentional plot device. Both Edward and Montgomery represent different elements of the darkness that is part of Juliet’s past – darkness that she has to distance herself from if she herself will ever be free of her father’s world.

I wish I were more familiar with the original source material for this one – I haven’t read The Island of Dr. Moreau, I just read a synopsis online to better familiarize myself with the material before I started the book. Shepherd’s writing is really compelling though, and she does a great job from what I can tell of interweaving a new story into a recognizable one. I’m excited for the next books, which are stories I know better personally.

Reviewed from library copy.

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