This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on September 22, 2015
Genres: young adult, historical fiction, science fiction, steampunk, retellings
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Retellings are always risky, both to read and to write. It’s a challenge to come up with something original and creative enough to be different from its source material, but not too different. Add to that the expectation to do the source story justice and to acknowledge it in the retelling, and you’re walking a very fine line, indeed.
While I’ve never read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I feel This Monstrous Thing will be considered a fine tribute by those who have. This is Ms. Lee’s debut novel, and it is a solid one in its own right, all references to Frankenstein aside. And, while certain aspects of the book were oustandingly well done, I found myself wanting more.
Lee’s version of Geneva in 1818 is a steampunk-esque world, which, while it seems normal at first glance, is filled with secrets of its own. One of the biggest are the clockwork people, whom most of society regards as subhuman. These Victorian cyborgs are maintained by illegal mechanics called Shadow Boys. Our main character, Alisdair, and his father are both Shadow Boys, and so was Alisdair’s brother, Oliver, before he was killed. Alisdair still mourns the loss of his brother, and, in a move both emotion- and research-driven, our protagonist brings his brother back to life, only to discover that having his brother back is not what he thought it would be, and could be the most dangerous thing he’s ever done.
The author chose to set this book in early 1800’s (around the time Frankenstein came out), and I think it was a wonderful decision. Instead of simply following the plot down the same road its source material treaded, this book works with Frankenstein, if that makes sense. In this book, Frankenstein isn’t just the source material; it’s relevant to the entire plot of the novel. Frankenstein‘s publication poses a major threat to Alisdair and those he loves. What if the things described in Frankenstein were real? What if Frankenstein wasn’t just fiction–what if it was someone else’s story, a story that needed to be kept a secret? Seeing the ramifications of Frankenstein‘s publication and Lee’s answers to these questions was entertaining and intriguing.
I loved the world Lee introduced us to in this novel. It just felt so…authentic, the perfect balance between reality and fantasy. In a story like this, the steampunk blended seamlessly with the other elements of the story to create a unique, fascinating world with cogs and bolts that’ll set the ones in your own mind turning.
Another thing I really enjoyed was the plot. When Frankenstein is released and people start reacting to it, Alisdair is forced to make some big decisions about his brother and his own future, as well as his family’s reputation. This gives the book an air of suspense, and makes you worry for Alisdair and his family’s safety. We see his struggle of choosing between his reanimated brother and the future he’s always dreamed of, and what those choices mean for him and everyone he loves. There’s hardly ever a dull moment as Alisdair discovers the secrets of his ability and works to figure out what the right decision to make is.
However, I felt the climax of this novel was a little anticlimactic. The whole thing kind of came out of nowhere, in my opinion, and was resolved too quickly for there to be a lasting emotional impact.
Another area I felt was lacking was the characters. I found myself wanting more development there, more nuance, but everyone seemed a little too one-note for my taste. Oliver is angsty and violent, Alisdair is conflicted, Dr. Giesler is mysterious. Sometimes, these characters read more like their characteristics instead of actual people, and that made it hard for me to sympathize with them. ((SPOILER)) I especially felt Dr. Giesler was underdeveloped as a villain. We spend so long hearing about how he might possibly be evil that, when he actually does something villainous, it’s not all that surprising. The gradual build-up and development in his character to get to that point is missing, and so his actions from then on feel almost cartoony. ((END SPOILERS))
So, overall, if you like retellings and are intrigued by the idea of Frankenstein set in a steampunk world, I’d say check this out. Sure, some things could have been further developed, but This Monstrous Thing is definitely one of the stronger debuts I’ve seen. I look forward to seeing what Ms. Lee puts out next.