I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on September 22 2015
Genres: Young adult, Horror
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The nitty-gritty: A clever story of alternate history that answers the question, “What led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein?”
Mary was kneeling on the other side of Oliver’s body, her face still spattered with cemetery dirt. We were a sight, the pair of us, Mary with her muddy dress and wild hair, me with the knees torn out of my trousers, braces unfastened, and my shirt smeared with blood. We looked mad, Mary and I, exactly the sort of people who would be digging up corpses and resurrecting them in a clock tower.
“You’re either good, or you’re clever.” This is the running theme throughout this very imaginative Frankenstein story, and main character Alasdair Finch believes every word of it. I was intrigued by this story that incorporates not only a Frankenstein-like character, brought back to life with clockwork gears and electricity, but the famous book Frankenstein as well. In fact, it’s an alternate history of how the book may have been written, and because I’m a book lover, of course I was fascinated with Mackenzi Lee’s ability to weave parts of the real story of Frankenstein with her fictional version. If you haven’t heard the story of how Mary Shelley came to write her seminal novel, then you’re missing out. It’s one of those famous stories that begs to be written about, which is one reason I’m sure Lee tackled this subject. (And her Author’s Note at the end shouldn’t be missed!)
The story takes place in 1818 Geneva, Switzerland. Alasdair works in his father’s toy shop, but in the back of the store is a secret workshop where his father makes clockwork limbs for men and women who have lost arms and legs in the recent French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and he fuses his clockwork creations to flesh with surgery and electricity. But Alasdair and his father must work in secret, because creating clockwork people is illegal, and they are constantly on the run, afraid of being caught and thrown in jail.
But in this life of secrets, Alasdair has an even bigger one: two years ago, he brought his dead brother Oliver back from the dead with clockwork gears and a set of pulse gloves, and his parents don’t know about it. Oliver lives his “life” locked up in an abandoned castle, with only Alasdair’s infrequent visits to sustain him. Alasdair knows that if anyone found out about his brother, his entire family would go to prison, and Oliver would become nothing more than a science experiment.
And then one day, a package arrives in the mail from Alasdair’s friend Mary, a book called Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. When he begins to read, he’s horrified to discover that the story is about him and Oliver. Soon after, Alasdair’s father’s hobby is discovered by the police and he’s taken to prison, and Alasdair is approached by the infamous Dr. Geisler, a man who Alasdair looks up to, but who has taken the craft of clockwork to a terrifying new level. Alasdair joins Dr. Geisler in Ingolstadt, but he’s faced with a dilemma: if he shares his secrets of how he resurrected Oliver with Geisler, he can fulfill his dream of attending a prestigious university, but he’ll also betray his brother and put him in grave danger.
Lee echoes many of the themes of Frankenstein, especially with her “monster” Oliver, a boy who is trapped in a monstrous body, half man and half machine, with half the city wanting to destroy him because he’s different, and the evil Dr. Geisler wanting to use him in his own experiments. Oliver spends most of the book resenting his brother for bringing him back from the dead, and Alasdair berates himself for the same reason. Neither boy is happy, and it seems no matter what choices they make, someone is going to suffer for it. But Lee has a few surprises up her sleeves, and I loved the way their stories played out in the end.
Incorporating Mary Shelley into the story (by now you may have guessed who Alasdair’s friend “Mary” is) was a brilliant idea, and I loved the way the author used both fact and fiction to bring her story to life. Mary was Alasdair’s first love, and he’s still hurt by her abrupt marriage to another man (and if you know your history, you’ll know that man was poet Percy Bysshe Shelley). But Mary is more of a background character, and her husband Percy is only mentioned once or twice. This story really belongs to Alasdair and Oliver: Alasdair who is trying to reconcile the creature Oliver has become with the brother he used to know and love; and Oliver who is trying to find a way to forgive Alasdair for bringing him back from the dead.
Lee uses the clockwork people to show the persecution of a group of people—in this case, those who have had clockwork parts fused into their flesh in order to live more normal lives. The irony is that by being made of clockwork, their lives are anything but normal, since they must hide their deformities or risk going to jail. Lee paints the city of Geneva as a harsh place for clockwork folk to live, where they are barely tolerated. You could substitute any oppressed group of people throughout history for those with clockwork parts and you’ll get a sense of what the author is trying to accomplish.
When I first saw the cover for This Monstrous Thing, I was expecting more of a horror story, but honestly, there wasn’t much to be scared of in this book. Maybe it was because I was more fascinated than disturbed by the combination of gears and body parts, or maybe I just couldn’t picture Oliver as anything other than a regular person, but it’s hard to be scared of someone (or something) that you sympathize with. Also, Lee starts the action after Oliver has died and been resurrected, so the reader doesn’t get to experience the horror of these things first hand. The scariest part for me was the way the clockwork people were treated, and like all the best stories, Mackenzi Lee gives hers depth by echoing our own fears of social injustice (and kudos to her for accomplishing it with subtlety!)
Part alternate history, part steampunk, part social commentary, This Monstrous Thing combines some of my favorite elements into a story that will make readers think about what it means to be “clever or good.”
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.