Author : Megan Shepherd
Genre : Gothic thriller
Publisher : Balzer + Bray
IT takes a lot of guts to mess with an established tale, to add on to an existing mythology – especially when the original work you’re messing with belongs to H.G. Wells.
The Madman’s Daughter is built around Wells’ The Island Of Dr Moreau but told from the viewpoint of the famous surgeon’s daughter, Juliet.
After her father’s disappearance following a scandal in her native London, she becomes a maid at a university. Sixteen-year-old Juliet is haunted by disturbing memories and plagued by rumours of her father’s gruesome experiments, the discovery of which led to him leaving.
In the original 1896 novel, Dr Moreau is an out-and-out madman who creates humanoid beings from animals using vivisection. Shepherd does not stray from this, and includes characters from the novel in her re-telling. She remains mostly loyal to the tale – except for the ending, which is a twist that manages to not be tired.
In The Madman’s Daughter, Juliet discovers her father is alive and well and living on a remote tropical island – and continuing his terrifying work. She convinces her former servant, Montgomery James, to take her back to the island with him, as she has nothing left in London following her mother’s death.
On the island, Juliet struggles to acclimatise to the strange creatures that populate the place – animal hybrids that her father has created on the operating table. She worries constantly his madness is in her too, and that she is less than human.
To further complicate matters, the mysterious shipwrecked Edward Prince stirs romantic feelings in Juliet – but so does childhood friend Montgomery.
As a spate of mysterious deaths occur – first rabbits, then worse – Juliet becomes embroiled in a whodunit murder mystery as she and Montgomery try to figure out who is responsible for the deaths.
You could do much worse than The Madman’s Daughter, which, despite taking some liberties with the original storyline, remains mostly true to the source. Although it’s quite difficult to really connect with Juliet at the start, I was surprised by my reaction to the ending: sympathy and mild sorrow at her lot.
The pacing is excellent, save for the ending; The Madman’s Daughter seems to be written for TV (and not in a good way): a long introduction, a solid middle, but a hurried ending (you’d imagine it would all culminate within the last 30 minutes of a two-hour film).
Particularly enjoyable in this novel is the relationship between Dr Moreau and Juliet – it’s cold, the connection of two scientists. Contrasted with the intense heat between her and Montgomery, it’s clear Shepherd is pretty good at yanking the heartstrings with mere dialogue.
That said, the constant fraughtness of Juliet’s life is a little tiring; she vacillates between useless damsel and supposed independent genius, but we see little of either (frankly, Juliet’s a bit thick and shrill).
What does sell the character is her very real, very not-Disney reaction to the animal hybrids: revulsion, reluctant compassion, fear. While many would have been tempted to write Juliet as a caring, loving character who champions the hybrids, Shepherd keeps it honest, a welcome relief that cuts through the usual young adult (YA) fiction fluff well.
The book is intended as the first in a trilogy, and the sequel, Her Dark Curiosity, is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886). The as-yet unnamed third will be based on Mary Shelley’sFrankenstein (1818). Although it’s a bit wearing that YA fiction writers seem to be at a loss for original ideas, Shepherd seems to weave her secondhand stories handily enough, providing an amusing – if not very gripping – read.