Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In-Depth Book Review: This Monstrous Thing



Rating: 4/5 
★★★

Last month, I got around to reading Mackenzi Lee's Gothic debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, a superb retelling of Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein with a slight twist.  But even still, Mackenzi Lee's novel remains true to the original classic by raising the question of whether it is truly better to bring the dead back to life...


The novel takes place in the backdrop of the early 1800s Europe and tells of a society where some humans are kept alive through the means of being repaired with clockwork parts.  This is considered severely taboo and is done in secret by an underground network of mechanics known as Shadow Boys.  Among these Shadow Boys is Alisdair Finch, who holds a very dark secret.  It has been two years since his brother, Oliver, fell from the clock tower.  It has also been two years since Alisdair successfully brought his brother back from the dead.  But still, even with his brother back, it never erases the guilt that Alisdair still carries with him to this day like a heavy weight.  And even with his brother back, he is still not quite the same as the old Oliver, and Alisdair finds himself missing his brother even when he's standing right in front of him.  But Alisdair can't let others know that Oliver is alive.  They all think he is still dead.  And so Alisdair keeps him hidden, which only furthers the crack in their relationship.  All the while, as the reality of clockwork people and their existence in society unfolds, and as he teams up with the renowned Dr, Geisler, Alisdair begins to question the morality of being a Shadow Boy - something he originally thought was a gift, but may actually be more of a curse. 
  
And being clockwork comes with a price.  Those who are built with clockwork parts don an inferior status in society.  They are looked down upon, told to stand up on the bus and give up their seats for "whole human men" - for once metal and wires meet flesh, it is no longer believed that clockwork men are truly human.  It is considered going against God, who created everyone in His own image.  One of the things that stood out most for me about this novel is how Lee sets up the story of Frankenstein into a larger story affecting all of society.  As I read, I felt like I could make all sorts of connections.  For one, it is easy to see the comparisons between the clockwork men of Geneva and people of color during the 1960's civil rights movement: the similarities between their struggles, their oppression, and society's harsh unforgiving treatment of them as the "other."  And there are other events still at the end of the novel that further mirror the civil rights movement as the plot escalates.  I also love the mix of history and politics that are intertwined in this novel.  In the midst of the French Revolution and Napoleon Wars, many are left with severe injuries, others with missing limbs, giving them no choice but to seek help and replace their limbs with clockwork parts.  As a consequence, these veterans are then the very same people who are treated as second class, their contributions seemingly ignored.    

Besides the historic and political influences that are deeply ingrained, the novel is simply beautifully written.  The descriptions paint a vivid picture of 1800s Europe, from the small shops to the cobbled streets.  And despite the fact that the cover looks like it could be the perfect book to read around Halloween (which I had originally planned for), the story actually takes place around Christmastime, and so there are a number of lovely scenes peppered with holly and Christmas markets and other moments reminiscent of the holiday season.

Still, this is a very dark novel, and one I absolutely loved.  I thought the retelling of Frankenstein with this mechanical twist was phenomenally well done.  I loved the societal aspect of it, yet the story is still elegantly written like the modern 1800s Gothic novel it is. 

I have to say, there wasn't a whole lot I disliked about this novel, but there were a few things I took note of:

One pet peeve I picked up on pretty quickly was the word "clockwork" being overused a bit too much.  I mean, we sort of get it... the story revolves entirely around clockwork men.  Sometimes it felt like clockwork was used in every other sentence to describe things, from clockwork men to clockwork horse carries to clockwork... clockworks!  It might've been better to have a bit of word variety, such as "mechanic" "bionic" "cogs", etc.

Another aspect that didn't quite sit with me was the questionable language at times that didn't seem to fit with the time period.  It didn't happen a lot, but every so often a word like "shitty" or "shithole" would crop up.  With the way that Lee carefully paints the backdrop of the 1800s to such a T, these colloquialisms were jarring and enough to temporarily take me out of the moment.  It's just like, Really?  A person used the word "shitty" in 1818 Switzerland?

Okay, but this is by far the biggest annoyance of the novel: Mary is actually a huge spoiled brat.
* Warning: Rant That Contains Spoilers!* 



Yes, that is Mary Shelley.  She makes an appearance in the novel as Alisdair's childhood friend who he had fallen in love with, only for her to reject him and to never see him again... that is until she comes back into his life amidst all the chaos surrounding a new novel, Frankenstein, written by a mysterious unknown author.  But Mary comes with a whole laundry list of items that make her irritating as a character. Let's review:

She leads Alisdair on, never once thinking to tell him she's engaged to be married.  Even worse, she tells his brother and then makes him keep the secret from Alisdair.  And even worse still, she betrays both of them (Oliver and Alisdair) by writing their story even though it wasn't hers to tell.  Oh, but she was there and she just couldn't keep it inside any longer.  And of course the guy she's engaged to has to be the most possessive jerk in the world who gives her no privacy and insists she publish the story.  So according to Mary, she very well couldn't have said NO -eyeroll-  But let's be honest here, she didn't even have to fess up the truth.  She could've just said, 'I don't feel like publishing this one.'  What, her husband couldn't have physically forced her to publish it.  Throw it into the fire, rip it in pieces, keep it locked up in a secret place!  She could've done any of those things, but instead, she just let herself publish Alisdair's deepest, most painful secret to the world, putting both him and Oliver in danger.  And then, stupidly, knowing what she did, she decides to visit Alisdair after her novel is published.  And of COURSE Oliver finds out what she did and is incredibly angry.  I don't know what else she was expecting.  Not only that, but her book Frankenstein threw virtually EVERYTHING into chaos.  It sent everyone on a manhunt for the real Frankenstein  (A.K.A. Oliver).  It sent Doctor Geisler after Alisdair to use him as a tool in order to achieve what Geisler never could.  It sent Alisdair to prison.  It caused the clockworks to form a riot as they pretty much overtook the city.  And then even after all THAT, Mary can't see what she did wrong - or at least she tries to play stupid:

Mary: "If you're lying to me, I'll skin you alive."
Alisdair laughs.
Mary: "What are you laughing at me for?"
Alisdair: What a damn joke coming from you."
Mary: "And what's that supposed to mean?"
Alisdair: "You know damn well what I mean, Mary."

OOOH my god, really though!  You honestly don't see what you did, Mary?!  And then just to top it off, she refuses to own up to her mistake and take responsibility for what she's done, even willing to let others die and let the city continue to break into chaos:

Alisdair: "Think how many people will die---"
Mary: "The police will stop them."
Alisdair: "Then think how many clockwork people will die.  They are Frankenstein's Men - Frankenstein's army, those are your words, Mary.  You have ruined so many lives with your book - people are going to die if you don't come with me and talk to Oliver.  Can you live with that?"
Mary: She swiped at her cheek with the heel of her hand.  "I'll be alright"

-jawdrop-  Yeah.  EXTREMELY thoughtless.  And even after ALL THIS - after everything she put Alisdair through - Mary tells him she was in love with him and maybe still is: 

"And I think we could make each other happy.  You could stay here in the city.  We could see each other.  See what happens.  And I just think it would be good... for both of us... I want you to stay with me."  

Right, like you stayed with him?  Oh no, you just kept him wrapped around your finger that summer and let him fall head over heels for you, then let him kiss you, and only THEN did you admit you were engaged to be married and then left him for good.  Understandably, Alisdair doesn't put up with this.  She had her shot and now it's too late for her.  And this is how Mary responds: "Oh, that's... unexpected."

... LIKE, ARE YOU SERIOUS!?"  Did you REALLY expect him to drop everything and come crawling back to you like your own little puppy in spite of EVERYTHING you've done?!?  And then she goes onto ask, "Is it her?" referring to Clemence, a clockwork girl who Alisdair comes to befriend.  Like, YES.  Clemence is the ONLY logical reason why Alisdair would choose not to get back with you and your manipulative, privileged, princess ways.  And the fact that you looked to Clemence simply because she's a girl just shows how petty and immature you are.

But focusing on Clemence more, I LOVED her as a character.  Not only is she clockwork herself, but she's a queer character!  YAY.  I am always a fan of queer representation in literature.  You could even make a connection between Clemence's clockwork makeup and her sexuality.  She hides her clockwork status, for fear that people will view her as inhuman, and she has a past in which she once fell in love with a girl.  I honestly loved Clemence so much as a character.  She comes from a troubled past but she's incredibly strong.  And she's queer, an identity that is so often under-represented in novels such as this and especially in the 1800s.  Along with that, she's compassionate and she fights for what she believes in.  When Oliver thinks no one would be able to understand him because of who he is, Clemence steps forward and shows him that there is at least one person in this world who is just like him, and together they eventually organize a riot, showing society that they will not remain quiet.

Clemence is such a strong female character, and she shows great representation... which is why it felt slightly disappointing when I felt that Lee hinted at Clemence and Alisdair forming a romantic bond.  It's sort of just like, "Yes, yes, representation!... Ah, come on, not again!" when it inevitably runs the typical heteronormative script: boy and girl end up having intimate moment simply because there's a boy and a girl.  I mean, it's great if Clemence is bisexual, and in no way am I suggesting that her being with Alisdair would automatically erase her identity.  But it also runs the risk of implying, "Hey, it didn't work out with that girl, but I'm sure it'll work out with me" and erasing any promise of her portraying an alternate representation anyway.  It's just... ooh, so close.  Thankfully Alisdair and Clemence don't end up together by the end of the novel, and there's actually very little romance in this novel.  For the most part, the question of whether there is romance between Alisdair and Clemence is ambiguous, and by the end it seems maybe they're more very deeply platonic friends, which I think is best.  Still, I wish Clemence would've found another female love interest who would accept her mechanical identity, or at least for the novel to have found some other way to emphasize her queer representation in the novel.  It sort of just gets pushed down once her and Alisdair become closer.

My one other wish for this novel that would make it pretty much perfect is for Oliver to have been more present, and maybe even for the story to occasionally have been told from his perspective.  After all, this story essentially revolves all around Oliver... yet for a good chunk of the novel, he's not present.  The story is told completely from Alisdair's perspective, and aside from the brief moment in the beginning of the novel when Alisdair checks up on Oliver at his secret hideout before ultimately fleeing the city, we don't really get introduced to Oliver again until Alisdair comes back.  I want to know what Oliver was doing all that time!  I want to know what was going through his mind, how he reacted to Mary finding him.  I want to see the story through his eyes and his thoughts.  I think it would make the novel so much stronger if the novel was set up in alternating points of view between Alisdair and Oliver.

With everything said, I really loved Mackenzi Lee's novel.  There are so many great aspects of it, so much to pull from it, and it's crafted with such detail.  I highly recommend this to anyone who's interested in a gritty YA retelling of Frankenstein.  

Thanks for reading my review of This Monstrous Thing.  I hope you enjoyed it and that it got you interested in wanting to read this book, too!
x Belle





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