Let’s get the obvious point out of the way, then. Adler uses fictional characters from classic literature, so the comparison’s to Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are inevitable. Sure, all the main characters are female, which is a point of difference, and Moore certainly didn’t invent the concept of reimagining other people’s characters. But perhaps a bigger change is the relative lack of reverence that writer Lavie Tidhar has for the original characters. While the characters in Moore’s League series don’t stray far from their original authors’ intentions, even to the point of bigotry that doesn’t sit well with a modern audience, Tidhar goes down an alternative universe route, using little more than their names and a skeleton character study to inform his own interpretation. He also mixes it up with real people, such as radiation pioneer Marie Curie.
The leader of the heroines is Irene Adler, an American opera singer and adventurer, originally created by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes books. Joining her is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, though she’s not like the Jane Eyre I remember from my English Literature GCSE (though admittedly, that was a long time ago). At the beginning of the book we see Jane in the thick of the Boer War, where she’s working as an ambulance driver. She returns to London a fighter, ready to join Adler in her battle against Ayesha, Queen of the Amazons, who is also in London to take revenge on the British Empire’s colonial wrongdoings.
Frankly, by the time these and other characters have been dropped in and messed around with, it could be almost any character, as the literary heritage feels neither here nor there. I might be missing nuance here (it wouldn’t be the first time), but there’s nothing in this story that particularly encourages the reader to seek out the source material. Not that it’s a bad, pulpy, female-led adventure yarn, but it didn’t leave me yearning for more.
Paul McCaffrey’s art carries the story well with a style that reminded me of Bryan Talbot, which is a good thing. However, the fantasy pulls harder than the weight of the source material and, as with the writing, it sometimes feels like the drive to make the characters resonate with a modern audience has forced the relevance of who they actually are into the background. The main characters’ outfits are a case in point. Clearly Amazonian queens have to wear leather bikinis, even when their business is in London. But by the time we get to the finale, and Adler has changed into a skin-tight catsuit with a red, um, bodice thing over the top, my eyes were tired from all the rolling they’d been doing.
I’m probably protesting too much. If you can read this without your brain pulling you out of the fantasy, and take it for what it is – a rip-roaring period action thriller with familiar characters colliding in a combined fictional universe – you’ll probably quite enjoy it. Just don’t think of it as The League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen.