Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review - The Madman's Daughter

The Madman's Daughter is a new imagining on H.G. Well's's classic novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. I first read Dr. Moreau a few years ago and really enjoyed the book. It's a historical science fiction novel with heavy focus on the science aspect. In Madman's Daughter we get a retelling of the original story but from a new perspective. The book starts out in London and introduces us to a teenage Juliet Moreau, daughter of the famed Dr. Moreau. We learn of Juliet's fall from high society after her father's exile for his experiments. We find her working as a low cleaning woman at the college. She is flailing in poverty and constantly threatened with inappropriate advances and disrespect from those around her. Her life continues to get worse and worse but then one day she finds her father's servant Montgomery. She's known Montgomery since she was a child since he was also a child in her home and was treated by the family somewhere between servant and son.

Juliet persuades Montgomery to take her with him on the return voyage to her father's island. He is very reluctant and warns her of danger but she insists and they take the voyage. The original Dr. Moreau story is narrated from the point of view of a castaway named Edward who was found adrift at sea by Moreau's servants as they return from London. They carried him back to the island with him where he then narrates the original book.

In this book, while Juliet travels on the ship, she provides a narration similar to that of the castaway in the original novel. We learn of her interactions and opinions of Montgomery, her father's other servants, and the strange collection of equipment and animals they carry with them. We are reminded that this novel is aimed at a teenage audience and there are hints of a romantic interest between Juliet and Montgomery, but more of that comes later. As Montgomery and Juliet near the end of their sea voyage, the castaway appears and is brought on board. While we don't get the story from his point of view, many of the actions both on the boat and on the island are similar to the original novel though sometimes they happen to Juliet rather than Edward.

Having Juliet as the narrator of the book brought a new level of thought and insight that wasn't there in the original novel. The stranded castaway provided a unique and distanced viewpoint from which to observe and chronicle the actions of Dr. Moreau. He still faced with horror the truth of Moreau's experiments and behaviors but the castaway wasn't invested in Moreau in the same way Juliet is. Because Juliet is Moreau's daughter, she is generally conflicted about what to suspect or believe about the things she sees and hears around the island. Even though she had a somewhat estranged childhood with her father and has some strong resentment for the way he left her, she still cares for him and wants to believe the best of the man who is her father. But as the truth becomes more and more undeniable, she begins to worry about how much of her father's madness and behavior is restricted to him and how much might have passed to her through genetics.

Beyond the conflict Juliet feels with her father, she is also conflicted about her feelings towards Montgomery and Edward. Early on in the book it is clear that she is infatuated with Montgomery and thinks fondly of him not only as a childhood friend but as a comforting presence and attractive prospect for her life now and onward. At the same time, she is thrust into intense situations with Edward. Seeing him as a helpless castaway, she immediately feels some compassion towards him. As time passes, she finds herself attracted to him beyond simple compassion.

By the end of the book, a nice love triangle has formed that adds romantic tension. There are some passages of romantic commentary and swooning but to those who don't "go in for that sort of thing", I think you'll find that the balance is well struck and you should be able to carry on with the story without worrying too much about the "sappy romance." And yet, for those who appreciate romantic interludes, you should find the tension and suspense compelling as Juliet tries to weigh her emotions and her feelings while both Edward and Montgomery respectfully proclaim their love for her. Admittedly, the romance is a little sappy and the dialogue is a little sappy at times, but I'm not a big reader of romance, so I can't really comment on the quality. :-)

For those not interested in the romantic elements, there is also plenty of adventure and suspense to keep you turning the pages. As you might expect from a book surrounding Dr. Moreau, there are some biologically disturbing sequences having to do with his experiments both in the process of operating on his subjects as well as the events that take place outside of the operating room. The pacing of the first half (or more) of the novel is rather measured and meanders through mystery and suspense at a moderate to slow pace with bits of action scattered throughout. The last third of the book is an intense chase around the island as our various characters try to find safety for themselves and others.

The writing in this book is solid, elegant and well crafted. The details and research are well done and everything felt very correct and believable (at least to me, a non-expert in the world of late 18th century history). Some of the dialog and actions felt perhaps a little too modern, but I let them pass and generally felt like the novel was written very well in such a way that it bridged the centuries…remaining true to the tone and feel of a book written and set over 100 years ago while still feeling compelling, fresh and interesting to readers of the 21st century.

There were many things I enjoyed about the original book, The Island of Dr. Moreau and I was pleased that many of those themes and elements persisted into this book. But with The Madman's Daughter there are new themes and ideas to deal with. The transition of narration to Moreau's daughter is a wonderful change that cast the entire story in a new light and added a new psychological tension to the already troubling situation. The love triangle was an intriguing new element that helped bring in a different sense of humanity and kind emotions that certainly wasn't as present in the original book.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. Having already enjoyed the original story, I wasn't surprised to find myself eagerly devouring this retelling. I was very pleased at how true it felt to the original while still being a fresh new work. I am even more intrigued to learn that this book is supposed to be the first in a trilogy. With the way this novel ends, I'm a little confused and definitely curious to see what happens next. Unlike some other "first in a series" book's I've read, I felt like this one really answered most of the key questions and issues that needed answering. So rather than setting up an obvious sequel, it leaves the reader with a complete ending. I will grant that the ending may not "satisfy" every reader in the same way. In a tragic story such as this one, it's difficult to have a wholly "happy" ending. But the ending is satisfying and I felt good about the way it ended. At the same time, I'm definitely interested to see what the next book brings.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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