The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

Sometimes when you read a book you have a very good idea what it will be about. How can there not be spoilers for a book called The Daughter of Doctor Moreau? Especially if you have read Theodora Goss’s wonderful Athena Club books. And this is a novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, so there’s a good chance it will be set in Mexico. The cover suggests that. What more do you need to know? And, perhaps just as importantly, what is there for the author to do?

In Moreno-Garcia’s version of the Moreau story, he does not live on an island in the Pacific. Instead he lives on a remote hacienda on the Yucatán Peninsula. The Spanish colonists are trying hard to extract every last peso from their land, and that means working the native Maya hard on plantations. Slavery has been abolished, but there are many ways in which a wealthy man can bind the poor to his service. Even an educated European such as Moreau is at risk.

Having been disowned by his family because of his experiments, Moreau has fled to Mexico and fallen in with a landowner called Hernando Lizalde. In order to finance his work, Moreau has convinced Lizalde that his human-animal hybrids will provide a better workforce than the Maya. They will have the strength and stamina of animals and, not being human, can be enslaved with impunity. Lizalde has given him Yaxatkun at which to work.

Things are not going according to plan. The hybrids are not as healthy as Moreau had promised. Lizalde is getting impatient. Maya insurrectionists are hiding in the forests and raiding the haciendas, probably with the support of the detestable English who are always poking their noses in where they are not wanted.

But the English too can fall on hard times. Moreau is in need of a new mayordomo for the hacienda. Montgomery Laughton is down on his luck, having first fled England to get away from his family, and then fled marriage to a beautiful wife whose demands for luxury far outstripped his ability to deliver. He has found refuge in the jungle, and in the bottle. Moreau needs someone who will not ask awkward questions about the strange inhabitants of Yaxaktun.

This, then, is our happy family: Dr. Moreau, a mad genius; Montgomery Laughton, an English alcoholic; sundry strange creatures neither human nor animal; and Carlota.

Oh yes, the Daughter of the title. She is, by all accounts, a beauty, and very nearly of an age to be introduced to Society. Apparently she was a sickly child, but thanks to Moreau’s medical skill she is now blooming. All she needs is a regular concoction made from the blood of the jaguar, for which Laughton is employed as a hunter.

Time passes, and a party arrives at Yaxaktun. It is led by Lizalde’s son, Eduardo, and his cousin, Isidro. The former is handsome, reckless, arrogant, and very much a man for the ladies. The latter has the mind of a priest, though his family has forbidden him to take the cloth. They have come against Hernando’s express wishes, intrigued by the mystery hacienda in the jungle. We know how this will turn out.

Moreno-Garcia is good at this. Her books, though undeniably strange, attract a mainstream audience. Which is just as well, because at this point all mystery has evaporated. As science fiction readers we know exactly what to expect. I rather whizzed through part 2 of the book because everything was so well set up that I could have written it myself, albeit with far less panache.

The question then becomes one of what will befall Carlota and the hybrids now that all has been revealed. That, I am pleased to say, Moreno-Garcia handles very well. She hasn’t set out to re-write the HG Wells book. Instead she has used the story as a vehicle to make points about how young women were treated in the 19th Century, and what was going on in Mexico at the time. In particular the book is an excellent reminder of the evils of Patriarchy, in its pure sense of the father being lord of all he surveys, and the heir expecting to come into that power.

Also, jaguar. Four paws up.

book cover
Title: The Daughter of Doctor Moreau
By: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
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