Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd

The Madman's Daughter continues the trend in young adult literature of using a classic novel, in this case, H.G. Well's, The Island of Dr. Moreau, as the backstory for a new novel. In this novel, the story is a retelling of the H. G. Wells novel but includes the fictitious daughter of Dr. Moreau.

Since the scandal and disappearance that beset her father, Dr. Moreau, life has not been good to sixteen year old Juliet Moreau. Initially Juliet and her mother were left penniless until her mother became a wealthy man's mistress. When her mother died of consumption and no relatives would take her in,  Juliet was hired on by King's College of Medical Research in London, working as a maid.

One night Juliet discovers a group of medical students using a drawing of her father's while performing a vivisection (the dissection of live animals). She traces the drawing to the Blue Boar Inn where she believes her father to be hiding. Instead, she finds her father's young former assistant, Montgomery, and a deformed animal-like man named Balthazar, sharing a room. Montgomery is no longer a thin boy of sixteen, but has grown into a handsome, well built man. Juliet learns that her father is alive and living on an island near Australia.

After an altercation with a doctor at King's College results in the London police searching for her, Juliet is forced  to accompany Montgomery and his assistant, Balthazar on their return voyage to her father's mysterious island in the South Pacific. They arrange passage on a ship and take several months to arrive at their destination. The voyage is, for the most part a typical one, except for the discovery of a man, Edward Prince, who is the sole survivor of a ship wreck. Given the choice of staying on board or accompanying Juliet and Montgomery to the island, Edward choices the island.

Dr. Moreau is surprised but happy to see his daughter. He is not so welcoming of Edward. Juliet is disturbed to see that many of the islanders are similar, if not more deformed than Balthazar. Not only that but her father and Montgomery appear to live in fear of something outside of their research compound. She is determined to discover the truth about her father; is he a genius or a madman? The scandal which broke in London and led him to flee involved some kind of  butchery and Juliet means to uncover the truth.

It isn't long before Juliet learns the secrets of her father's research and the horrors that lie hidden in the humid jungles of the island. As Juliet discovers the exact nature of his "research" in a lab, nicknamed "The Blood House" by the island inhabitants, she struggles to overcome her sense of horror and revulsion and come to terms with the scientific curiosity that wells up within her. His use of vivisection to create humans out of animals is diabolical and cruel to Juliet. Even worse is Montgomery's apparent willingness to defend Moreau, help the bizarre creatures and even participate in Moreau's research.

As Juliet struggles to settle into life on the island she discovers an island full of her father's creatures, some of whom are living in a village. The entire island is wrapped in fear as something is those creatures living outside the research compound.  As her father and Montgomery struggle to find and kill the monster murdering the inhabitants, Juliet struggles to understand who she really is and if her father is truly mad.

When there is evidence that the killing is continuing, Dr. Moreau decides to stop the treatment of all his creatures on the island. Without this treatment, the creatures he has created regress back to their animal forms, but retaining some of their human character. As the creatures regress, they begin to revolt against Moreau and Edward, Montgomery, and Juliet realize that they must leave the island as soon as possible.

As if this isn't enough to cope with, Juliet becomes part of a love triangle that includes Montgomery and Edward. Juliet's ties to Montgomery go back to her childhood in London and she is desperately attracted to him as he is overwhelmingly handsome. But Juliet is revolted by Montgomery's part in her father's research. She also becomes aware that Alice, one of her father's creatures is in love with Montgomery.

In contrast, Edward is seemingly refined, wealthy and made the choice to come to the island because he knew about the scandal surrounding Dr. Moreau and he chivalrously wants to protect Juliet. However, Juliet suspects he has a dark secret in his past that he is none to eager to share with her.

Juliet is also struggling with her identity both as the daughter of a scandalous, cruel researcher and as a person receiving a mysterious treatment for an undisclosed glycogen deficiency. Her injections look very similar to those the creatures receive and Juliet begins to worry that she might be one of her father's morbid creations.

Eventually, the island descends into chaotic horror pitting men against beasts, secrets are revealed, and loyalty and love are tested to the very limit.

Shepherd has done a wonderful job creating a compelling read that combines sensual romance, with heart-pounding suspense and a dash of gothic darkness.Unlike Kenneth Oppel's novels about Dr. Frankenstein, which create a new story that imagines Victor Frankenstein's life before he creates his monster, Shepherd has chosen to  rewrite Well's Dr. Moreau story with some significant changes. Instead of being told through the voice of Edward Prendick, the shipwrecked protagonist of Wells' novel, Shepherd's story is narrated by his daughter Juliet who was not a part of Well's classic. Balthazar is a M'Ling-like character from the original novel, a creature created by Moreau out of a dog, bear and horse.

Although she does a remarkable job, I can't help but wonder if her version will ruin the original classic for these readers. Shepherd's story has more melodrama and has a strong romantic element that will appeal to teen readers. She has left the ending open because this part of a trilogy, with the second book incorporating the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde novel.

The book trailer is tame and bland, hinting at the conflict Juliet Moreau experiences as she discovers the true nature of her father's work but failing to capture the gothic darkness of Shepherd's novel:

I didn't like the cover and felt that is was somewhat inaccurate. I think the cover could have been improved by placing the dishevelled figure of Juliet in a tropical setting rather than by a lake in what looks to be a temperate location. Nevertheless this book will garner much interest by those who love gothic novels.

Book Details:
The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd
New York: Balzer & Bray an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 2013
420 pp.

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