Her Dark Curiosity: Review

Her Dark Curiosity: ReviewHer Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd
Series: The Madman’s Daughter #2
Published by Balzer & Bray, Harper Collins on January 28, 2014
Genres: gothic, historical, science fiction
Pages: 420 pages
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • Goodreads

four-half-stars

Inspired by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this tantalizing sequel to Megan Shepherd’s gothic suspense novel The Madman’s Daughter explores the hidden natures of those we love and how far we’ll go to save them from themselves. Perfect for fans of Libba Bray.

Back in London after her trip to Dr. Moreau’s horrific island, Juliet is rebuilding the life she once knew and trying to forget her father’s legacy. But soon it’s clear that someone—or something—hasn’t forgotten her, as people close to Juliet start falling victim to a murderer who leaves a macabre calling card of three clawlike slashes. Has one of her father’s creations also escaped the island?

As Juliet strives to stop a killer while searching for a serum to cure her own worsening illness, she finds herself once more in a world of scandal and danger. Her heart torn in two, her past bubbling to the surface, and her life threatened by an obsessive killer—Juliet will be lucky to escape alive.

Ah, I am seriously so interested and excited by this book.

For folks who are unfamiliar with The Madman’s Daughter series by Megan Shepherd, the basic premise is as follows: what if Dr. Moreau (island, animal-human hybrids, H.G. Wells) had a daughter with the same scientific bent? The first book (Wendy has a positive review of that book here; Tonya liked it less) follows Juliet Moreau from London – where she’s been living and working, cleaning university laboratories and the like after her father disappeared following a scandal that besmirched their family name – to the fabled island her father’s currently set up shop on. Juliet’s anxious and excited about reuniting with her father, but her feelings become more troubled when she discovers that the rumors are true: not only is her father a vivisectionist, but he is crafting human beings from the parts of different animals. (Whom he names after characters from Shakespeare, because the intertextuality of this book is awesome.)

These are the interesting topics from the first novel: tell me more about these animal-human hybrids and what they’re into, man! & please describe in detail Juliet’s inner turmoil and poorly suppressed interest in her father’s science! Unfortunately, there is also a far less interesting love triangle featuring a former family servant turned Moreau lab assistant (Montgomery) and a dark, handsome stranger (Edward). Consequently, I was worried that this love triangle would overwhelm the second book – and it does, a little – but mostly it is awesome. Juliet’s doing science and fighting her urges to killinate things and it is just the best. I cackled evilly so many times while reading this book, you all.

So, Her Dark Curiosity picks up after Juliet’s returned to London, leaving the island and everything she loves behind View Spoiler »(but not her father because she helped some murderous hybrids get into his lab to exact vengeance, nbd) « Hide Spoiler and things are looking up for her: she’s been adopted by a former colleague of her father’s, she’s back with her best friend, Lucy, and although she’s haunted by What She Did on the island and the men she left behind, her biggest problem is that her super rare illness – a glycogen deficiency caused by View Spoiler » deer organs that someone, no telling who, put in her body to save her life when she was a baby « Hide Spoiler – is getting worse.

But Juliet’s busy looking for a cure in her super secret lab (where she also creates flower hybrids, because they can’t turn against you) and this is all well and good until someone (the Wolf of Whitehall!) starts murdering everyone who’s ever wronged Juliet. So, Juliet knows that one of her father’s creations has escaped the island, and she’s pretty sure she knows who it is. Juliet is thus faced with a bunch of big questions: what is her responsibility to her father’s creation when she finds him, to cure or kill? is he human? does his death matter more, or less, or differently if he’s not human? what is Juliet’s relationship to the science that created him? does the life of one person matter when weighed against the safety of a given community? who is the monster and who is the man (sing the bells of Notre Dame)?

It’s probably abundantly clear at this point that one of the major questions that sparks my interest in a book is does it ask any combination of the following: what does it mean to be human, or embodied, or a person, and what counts and what doesn’t? & augh, this book delivers. Juliet’s forced to deal with these questions on both a personal and a social level.

One of the things I really liked about the book was that it doesn’t shy away from making Juliet face difficult truths about herself. Like her father, Juliet has the capacity for obsessive scientific curiosity coupled with a growing disdain for social convention. In one of the opening scenes of the first book, The Madman’s Daughter, Juliet stumbles upon some university students vivisecting a bunny. While everyone else is helpless to act, Juliet grabs an ax and chops its head off. In terms of establishing character, this moment is pretty decisive.

In Her Dark Curiosity, Juliet’s experimentation leads her to some potentially dark places; there is this wonderful scene when she realizes that the ingredients she’s using aren’t fresh enough (fresh animal organs would be better) and then her gaze falls upon her beloved dog, and before she knows it, she’s dissecting him in her mind. And she is deeply horrified at herself but also super curious. Juliet initially attributes these darker inclinations to her illness, but in her pursuit of a cure, she’s forced to question whether this curiosity is a symptom of her illness or a fundamental part of who she really isHer Dark Curiosity is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; it’s worth noting that while there’s a textual Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde, make no mistake, this is actually Juliet’s story. (Especially given where the third book seems ready to take us! No spoilers, but I’m excited for Shepherd’s continued journey through 19th century British literature.)

While I loved this book (and I want to be very clear about this: I would happily re-read and/or teach it, and I don’t re-read books very often these days), there are a few moments in the book that gave me pause. These are mostly centered on the love triangle and are super spoilery, so look under the cut with caution. View Spoiler »

Ok, so here is my deal: while Juliet’s love triangle is thankfully way less present in this book (seriously,  A++ choice), it still exists. Here is why I care: the two men that Juliet’s choosing between, Montgomery and Edward, are … kind of equally awful to me.

Edward, for folks who have read the first book, is the Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde character that is murdering all the people in this book. While Edward is kind of creepy (and Juliet rightfully calls him out on this later in the book – he’s in love with a fantasy!Juliet), the other side of him is a SERIAL KILLER. He’s not a real choice and Juliet knows it (they sleep together, but for her it’s clearly about someone actually being there for her and not abandoning her, like everyone else in her life, whereas he is like “NOW WE SHALL BE WED.” She is clearly not into it, though, and sets him straight.)

Montgomery, on the other hand, has the benefit of being her childhood best friend and established love interest. She chooses him and not Edward – even before she knows Edward is a killer. Keep in mind the fact that Edward is established as a killer by the end of the first book because he’s killing the beast-people on the island left and right. Killing beast-people: makes you a killer. At the end of the first book, however, Montgomery stays on the island to watch over the beast-people, but problem: for reasons, the beast-people regress back into “the animals they were” and Montgomery is forced to kill them all. “Killing them mercifully was my penance,” he says. And, yes, there’s a difference between the murders that Edward/The Beast commits and Montgomery’s on the island, but.

One of the most prominent themes of the book is about the slippery distinction between animal and human. This is the (?) major question of the first book – what counts as an animal? What makes someone or something human? I feel like Montgomery gets waaaaayyyyyyyy too much of a pass. He kills everything on the island & claims it as his penance? Why are all of these deaths meaningless? Again, I’m not saying Montgomery = Edward, but I do feel like the meaning of Montgomery’s actions isn’t explored fully enough here. And it’s complicated by the fact that Edward has little control over the Beast’s actions; Montgomery has greater control over his own.

tl;dr: I am really picky about my romances, and I want Montgomery’s actions to have consequences. « Hide Spoiler

So. I was fascinated by this book: I love how Shepherd riffs on the 19th-century canon, I love all the literary references, I love Juliet (lady scientist leads for the win), and I love the questions that the novel thinks through. Go read this if you love Victorian fiction and aren’t particularly squeamish.

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