The Athena Club returns for one last adventure in Theodora Goss’s The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, the final installment of her trilogy of quirky, women-fronted metafictional Victorian pastiches.
The members of the household have returned to London after first rescuing Lucinda van Helsing from her father’s experiments, then going on to confront the Société des Alchimistes, the clandestine group behind such irresponsible and unethical “research.” After all their experiences on the Continent, they are all looking forward to a little quiet, though they find upon their return that home feels both comfortable and strange; their travels have changed their perspectives (well, except for Diana). But when they learn that both their domestic servant Alice and the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes have gone missing, they are thrown back into the fray.
In their previous case, recounted in European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, the members of the Athena Club learned that their maid Alice appeared to have occult, mesmeric powers. The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl follows both Alice in the wake of her abduction, and the exertions of the Athena Club members as they endeavor to get her back. During her captivity, Alice finally learns of her parentage, a fact long shrouded in mystery; her origins are characterized by something between active neglect and outright abuse, and in her avaricious parentage, she’s closer to the members of the Athena Club than mere employment.
The sins of fathers who view paternity as something much worse than ownership has been a major theme of the series so far. The members of the Athena Club are all ancillary characters from Gothic fictions: the sisters, daughters, wives, and servants whose stories were subsumed under a man’s scientific inquiry or dubious pursuits. Catherine Moreau—the ostensible author of the novel we’re reading—is also a puma vivisected into a human form by the mad scientist whose name she bears. Justine Moritz, the servant framed for murder in Shelly’s fable, finds new life as Justine Frankenstein, having escaped destruction at the hands of her creator. Diana Hyde and Mary Jekyll are the dialectical daughters of the man who split his personality into good and evil, ego and id. Every member of the Athena Club is the daughter of unscrupulous scientists, who were themselves all members of the Alchemical Society.
Though the Athena Club was somewhat successful in forcing a modicum of accountability and ethical restraint on the Société des Alchimistes in the second book of the trilogy, there are still splinter groups and off-book projects out there in the world.
One of these is the Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members are made up of characters culled from the works of Bram Stoker: Dracula, and the lesser-known The Jewel of the Seven Stars. (Related aside: the characters from the latter have the last name Trelawny, which explains where J.K. Rowling got the name of Hogwarts’ resident clairvoyant.) The Order wants Alice for her mesmeric powers, a lynchpin in their dastardly plot to kidnap Queen Victoria in furtherance of their unscrupulous goals.
The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl is the most smoothly written of the Athena Club novels—the first of which, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the Nebula Award—though the interruption of the narrative for knowing character asides continues to frustrate the pacing. The decision to include Alice’s perspective from within her captivity by the Order of the Golden Dawn gives the reader a nuanced portrait of the villains of the piece. The members of the Order have profoundly different reasons for participation in their treasonous plot, some of which are not wholly bad, and many that are in conflict with one another. Heretofore, the machinations of Goss’s antagonists was largely inferred; good portraiture of bad dudes is much snappier. It makes for a satisfying and fitting end to an enjoyable series.