Last year I read - and loved - Cassandra Rose Clarke's debut YA novel, The Assassin's Curse. Having been struck by her writing and powerful voice, I was already looking forward to The Mad Scientist's Daughter based on that alone, but the cover reveal and the cover copy sealed the deal. Because look at that cover; it's completely glorious. And Clarke didn't disappoint with her first novel for adults. The Mad Scientist's Daughter is stunning. A gorgeous exploration of love, the ability to feel it and other emotions, and the lies we tell ourselves in order to attain happiness that probes the border between human and AI to see how far they stretch. Perhaps it has a little too much romance in it for those who think all SF should be hard, but for me it was a perfect blend.
While this is as much Finn's story as it is Cat's, the narrative is told strictly from Cat's perspective. We follow her from the time she's five years old and Finn is brought into her home to tutor her until she's about thirty-six. During all this time Finn is an integral part of her life, even once she moves away from home and even when they don't speak for years. Her voice is distinctive and Clarke isn't afraid to let her be unsympathetic. Cat is very human, with very human flaws, and we see her making choices which are unwise and say and do things that are unkind out of self-interest or ignorance. Despite this, I never lost my connection to the character, even when she strives to confirm to what she believes her late mother would have wanted for her and tries to lead a `normal' life and she takes some tremendously stupid decisions. Even if I was sitting there, going `no, no, no, don't do it' at her, Clarke so skilfully built her character that her decisions are plausible and I understood why she made them. She's also quite conflicted and damaged by her inability to deal with her mother's death. Despite this she's strong, stronger than she thinks and you can't help but root for her every step of the way.
Where Cat is all too human, Finn clearly isn't and he won't let us forget it. Every time Cat, and consequently the reader, starts to forget - dare we say even hope - that Finn isn't as human as he seems, he'll do or more often say something that reminds us he's an android. Yet from the first, Finn seems more than this; if there is something as the unreliable narrated character Finn is it. Cat often says she can't read Finn, due to his lack of emotion and facial expression, but from his words and his behaviour much can be distilled. The lies people tell themselves - and others - to be able to ignore an uncomfortable truth are large and Cat is an expert in telling them to herself. In fact at times I felt like reaching into the book and shaking her in hopes of getting her to wake up and see what was in front of her. Through Cat we also witness Finn's growth and his way to achieve his own agency, which was fascinating.
The Mad Scientist's Daughter is far more than a love story. Once Cat realises the truth about her feelings for Finn, she goes to find his origins and his history had just a hint of Frankenstein in it, which is subtle and yet not. If I hadn't just read a YA retelling of the book and a blog post on its conception and themes I wouldn't even have thought to make the connection. Finn's past contained a ton of grief, madness and questions about what constitutes life. This last question is further reflected in the ADL (Automata Defence League) which advocates for the emancipation of sentient robots and androids. The ADL is the embodiment of one of the main questions Clarke poses with this narrative: when does something attain enough humanity to be treated with equal rights? It is an age-old question when it comes to robotics and AI and Clarke handles it in an interesting way. For example, to counterweight Finn and his less-advanced brethren, Richard, Cat's husband works on creating sentient robots that don't possess consciousness to circumvent the laws that protect AI's. But people seem to like these less, exactly because they lack character. I really liked Clarke's treatment, but I would have liked more details on what laws the ADL managed to get passed and what rights the androids get to protect them from abuse. I'd say for me that was the one weak point in an otherwise amazing novel.
Reading The Mad Scientist's Daughter became a tug of war between wanting to devour the story as quickly as I could, because it was so good, and wanting to parse it out, because I didn't want it to end and leave Cat and Finn behind. And at no point did I cry... that was all dust in my eye. With this second book, Clarke has cemented her status as a must-read author. The Mad Scientist's Daughter is really something special and I look forward with anticipation to what Clarke produces next, because she is definitely a talent to watch closely and it's bound to be good. The Mad Scientist's Daughter will be available in the UK on February 7th and in US and the rest of the world on January 29th.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.