On a lot of levels, I'm really not entirely sure just how I felt about this novel. One thing that I do know quite for sure is that Shepherd writes well. Her syntax and diction dovetail with the historical setting, and never once threw me out of the book. Though much of the novel consists more of suspense than outright action, Shepherd kept the story tense and me on the edge of my couch.
Littered throughout The Madman's Daughter are literary references. Of course, the novel itself retells H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, which I have not read. However, my perusal of the Wikipedia article convinces me that Shepherd reworked the story with a deft hand. In addition to this, she sprinkled in numerous references to Shakespeare, including The Tempest, a very apt work to be brought up in this instance. There is even a reference to X-Men, though not, obviously, so overt of one, since it didn't exist back then.
What I found myself utterly unprepared for was how utterly dark, gruesome, creepy and horrifying this book is. Had I read Wells' work, I would have been better informed of the coming experience, but I knew nothing. Yes, the cover hints at creepiness, but this turned out to be one of the scariest books I have ever read. Of course, suspense has always been my weak point, as well as some other issues that I'll tackle next. Shepherd hits most of the staple varieties of horror: not knowing who to trust, fearing darkness with in oneself, mad science, gore, suspense, chases and more. Were I a big reader of horror, I do not know that I would have marked this as a must-read, but, let me tell you guys, you want this.
However, I know a lot of people, myself included, have a big issue with animal death in novels. For me, kill a human and I'm rarely bothered; kill a furry, adorable creature and I will ugly cry. An animal dies in an awful way in chapter two, and over the last half of the novel focuses on just vicious, awful things done to animals in the name of science. Again, were I familiar with Dr. Moreau, I would have known, but... If you're seriously concerned, my recommendation would be to read Wells' novel or a summary of it online, because I suspect Shepherd's is darker than the original, based on my sole Wells experience.
Juliet Moreau has a lot of sass and she made a delightful main character. I rooted for her along the way, which only made the horror that much more terrifying. Juliet's father, the infamous Dr. Moreau died, and, eventually, her mother did as well, leaving her to the charity of family. Unfortunately, her extended family turns out not to be at all charitable. Pulling on an old connection of her father's, she manages to obtain work at King's College as a maid, sunk low in prospects and station. At the college, Juliet is sexually harassed in the first chapter. I worried about whether she would have enough spunk to be an interesting main character, but, believe me, this girl holds her own once she is not trying to keep her job anymore.
Shepherd also excelled at Dr. Moreau, who fits the mad scientist role to a T. Not really a spoiler because obviously: he's actually alive. He also very much comes across as a man of the time period. So many historical novels depict most of the characters as rather modern with regards to women's rights, particularly those appealing to female readers. Dr. Moreau has no such conceptions, believing women are to be married to the men their fathers say, and that they should do nothing but needlework and piano playing until that time comes. Juliet, feisty and clever, struggles against how he wishes her to behave.
Sadly, I was not so fond of her love interests, Montgomery and Edward. Yup, a love triangle strikes again, though not one of the most annoying ones. I will credit Shepherd with not making it insanely obvious which man would be her choice, and with making both of them very obviously flawed, though neither one ranked as swoon-worthy for me. The love triangle reminded me somewhat of that in Griffin's Masque of the Red Death, though I felt a bit more sure in The Madman's Daughter which guy would win in the end. However, the ending did surprise me, so bonus points for that.
Do not let the lovely cover fool you: The Madman's Daughter is horror through and through. Though not for the faint of heart, Shepherd has constructed a well-written and clever retelling, sure to delight fans of creepy tales.