Monday, April 30, 2012

Read-Along: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

This is the first post for my participation in a read-along of Scott Lynch's Red Seas Under Red Skieshosted by Dark Cargo, @ohthatashley at SF Signal, My Awful ReviewsLynn’s Book Blog and the Little Red Reviewer.  What this means is...

Read-Along posts discuss a specific portion of Red Seas Under Red Skies and are therefore full of spoilers!  This is also a sequel of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and will be filled with spoilers from that book as well!  I will do a usual review post once the book is complete.

Right from the beginning, I'm already loving Red Seas Under Red Skies! I admit, though, that I’m completely late for this post.  I forgot to buy the book until Wednesday, and then wasn’t able to finish section one until Sunday, due to various other demands on my time.  I’ll try to be on time from here on out, but here are this week’s belated answers, at least!

1-2. The Sinspire. It looks like our heroes (can they really be called that?) find themselves in search of a way into an unbeatable vault. Do you think they have what it takes to make it happen? Anyone want to guess how they're going to make it happen?

I think that Locke and Jean are on the right track.  It seems like they have always been better at manipulating people than they are at more traditional cheating and theft.  You can see that in their behavior in the Sinspire—they couldn’t cheat the games, but they could most certainly cheat the players.  I think their scheme this time will have less to do with cracking the vault and more with manipulating Requin into letting them in.  I think they have what it takes!    

3. It's a little different this time around, with us just being focused on Locke and Jean. Is anyone else missing the rest of the Bastards as much as I am?

I am missing the rest of the Bastards, but at least Locke and Jean are the two I always felt like I knew the best.  I appreciated that Locke did not bounce back right away.  Even if he technically won at the end of Lies of Locke Lamora, I think that it was the first time he’s ever had to deal with such grief and guilt.  To some extent, I think that Jean was more prepared for a situation like this.  He’s already had to deal with violently and unexpectedly losing people he loves (his parents) and having to build a new life.  Locke lost his parents, but it seemed to have happened when he was very young—it’s unclear whether or not he even remembers them clearly.  I think its very likely Locke would have died if Jean had not been there to drag him along.

4. I love the section where Jean starts to build a new guild of thieves. It really shows just how well trained and tough he is. Do you think the Bastards will end up training others along the way again like Bug?

I think so, but maybe not in this book.  I think it may be a while before Locke will agree to build another gang.  He’s still grieving, and I think he feels guilty for not being able to keep his fellow Bastards alive.  I don’t believe he could cope with the idea of ‘replacing’ them yet.  

5. For those of you looking for Sabetha, we still haven't spotted her yet. Anyone else chomping at the bit to see the love of Locke's life?

Seriously, where is she?  She’d better be fantastic!

6. It's early on, but the Bastards are already caught up in plots that they didn't expect. How do you think their new "employer" is going to make use of them (The Archon, that is)?

I’m guessing it has something to do with the balance of power in Val Terrar.  The Archon seems unhappy with the power wielded by the Priori and Requin.  I’m guessing he wants to use Locke to destroy Requin’s power base in some way.  I further assume that he hopes for this not to be traced back to him, and that he fully intends to kill both Locke and Jean when the deal is concluded.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
Published: Jonathan Cape, Del Rey, 2009
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award

The Book:

“During a time of great upheaval, the citizens of Venice make a pact that will change the world. The landsmen of the city broker a treaty with a water-dwelling tribe of deepsmen, cementing the alliance through marriage. The mingling of the two races produces a fresh, peerless strain of royal blood. To protect their shores, other nations make their own partnerships with this new breed–and then, jealous of their power, ban any further unions between the two peoples. Dalliance with a deepswoman becomes punishable by death. Any “bastard” child must be destroyed.

This is an Earth where the legends of the deep are true–where the people of the ocean are as real and as dangerous as the people of the land. This is the world of intrigue and betrayal that Kit Whitfield brings to life in an unforgettable alternate history: the tale of Anne, the youngest princess of a faltering England, struggling to survive in a troubled court, and Henry, a bastard abandoned on the shore to face his bewildering destiny, finding himself a pawn in a game he does not understand.  Yet even a pawn may checkmate a king.”

My Thoughts:

In Great Waters is a supernatural alternate history, though I don’t think that it adheres strictly to any particular historical events.  The story seems to be set in a Europe several centuries in our past, and it focuses primarily on the English royal court.  The main difference between this world and our own is the presence of merpeople, known as deepsmen.  The deepsmen are not the shell-wearing princesses of Disney cartoons.  They’re violent and clannish, have a simple language based on clicks, whistles, and other sounds that carry cleanly through water, and are quite biologically dissimilar to humans, called ‘landsmen’.  The deepsman tribes represent a naval advantage to any nation that can hold their loyalty.  I liked how the story fleshed out the deepsmen’s society and way of seeing the world, and the attention that was paid to how their presence would affect human society.

Though I enjoyed the exploration of the role of deepsmen in European politics, certain elements seemed rather implausible to me.  First of all, I did not feel that there was a compelling reason for all the coastal royal families to interbreed with deepsmen.  The purpose of the interbreeding was to gain the ability to speak with the deepsmen and form alliances with them. It seemed like creating a translator position at court to be filled with non-royal hybrids would have been a much less extreme way to achieve the same goal. Considering how obsessed the royals were with protecting their bloodlines, I had a hard time accepting that they would all consent to interbreed with an entirely different species.  The mingling of blood also left the royal families as physical cripples, both on land and in the sea. I would have liked to have been given a convincing reason why the monarchs themselves absolutely needed to have deepsman blood.   

The eventual ban on interbreeding seemed a little unmotivated as well.  I suppose I wasn’t successfully impressed with the importance of deepsman blood to think that executing all hybrids would be a reasonable step in securing the position of the royalty.  After all, in reality, all humans are of the correct physical form to overthrow their monarchs, but most monarchs don’t seriously propose that slaughtering all their citizens is the only way to secure their power.  It didn’t really make sense to me in terms of protecting royal bloodlines, either.  The royal bloodlines were already mixed with the deepsmen, anyway, and preventing further mixing only resulted in severe birth defects from inbreeding.  It seemed like the worst of both options—the royal bloodlines were already ‘tainted’ and they still had to deal with genetic disorders.  I wished there could have been more of an explanation for this development in deepsman-landsman relations.

Though I had trouble buying some of the landsman policies regarding deepsman, I was very interested in the portrayal of the two societies and their differences.  On this topic, I particularly enjoyed the early story of the two hybrid protagonists, Anne and Henry.  Henry was an illegal hybrid who spent his first few years living with deepsmen.  I thought his introduction to above-water life was shown very skillfully.  It was clear that his worldview was shaped by his years underwater, and that this affected his efforts to make sense of his new world. Anne, on the other hand, was a child of the English royal family.  She was very conscious of her surroundings from a young age, and I enjoyed watching her slowly develop a construct of her world and the rules that bound it.   I loved these chapters, and their exploration of how the main characters were shaped by their upbringing and environment.

However, as the story progressed, it seemed to lose its tension and drive.  Both protagonists seemed to live lives marked by abnormally good luck, so their personal journeys never felt as difficult as they might have.  This became more pronounced later in the story, where their run of luck began to seem progressively more unlikely.  The protagonists’ good fortune also seemed to outstrip their ambition, which also seemed to mute the joy of their successes.  For instance, the only reason Henry ever wanted to be king to avoid being executed—he had no real interest whatsoever in landsmen. I remained interested in what would become of Henry and Anne, but I was never quite as engaged as I was with the story of their early lives.    

My Rating: 3/5

In Great Waters is an interesting fantastical alternate history story, where the existence of merpeople, called deepsmen, has changed European politics.  The deepsmen are not the cute kind usual to children’s stories, but are a territorial people who live violent, often short, lives. The detail given to developing the deepsman society and their effects on strengthened the story, though their exact role in society stretched credulity in some ways.  I most enjoyed the story of the early life of the two protagonists, which showed how their environments shaped the way they saw their world.  The story seemed to lose steam as it progressed, mostly because success seemed to come a bit too easily to the main characters. In Great Waters was definitely a creative and interesting story, despite my complaints, and it was fun to read such a different take on a familiar supernatural creature! 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Published: Gollancz & Bantam Spectra, 2006
Series: Book 1 of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence
Awards Nominated: British Fantasy Society Award, World Fantasy Award

The Book:

“An orphan’s life is harsh–and often short–in the island city of Camorr, built on the ruins of a mysterious alien race. But born with a quick wit and a gift for thieving, Locke Lamora has dodged both death and slavery, only to fall into the hands of an eyeless priest known as Chains–a man who is neither blind nor a priest. A con artist of extraordinary talent, Chains passes his skills on to his carefully selected “family” of orphans–a group known as the Gentlemen Bastards.

Under his tutelage, Locke grows to lead the Bastards, delightedly pulling off one outrageous confidence game after another. Soon he is infamous as the Thorn of Camorr, and no wealthy noble is safe from his sting.

Passing themselves off as petty thieves, the brilliant Locke and his tightly knit band of light-fingered brothers have fooled even the criminal underworld’s most feared ruler, Capa Barsavi. But there is someone in the shadows more powerful–and more ambitious–than Locke has yet imagined.”

After all those Read-Along posts, here’s my final review of The Lies of Locke Lamora! I’ve heard that this is the first of a planned series of seven books (two of which are currently published), and I’m looking forward to reading them all. I think The Lies of Locke Lamora does stand on its own as a novel, though there is a fair amount of foreshadowing that seemed to be pointing towards later in the series.  In any case, the ending resolved the story arc of this novel, while remaining open enough that I can’t wait to see what happens in the next installment. 

My Thoughts:

I felt that world building was one area where The Lies of Locke Lamora really excelled.   Camorr was a wonderfully realized place, with boatloads of physical description, intricate culture, society, and religion.  In fact, the setting of Camorr had so much personality that it felt like another main character.  I think that a fully developed concept of the world is very important for a novel that focuses so much on confidence schemes.   Without all the details—from the Secret Peace all the way down to the dressing habits of Vadran travelers—it would be difficult to appreciate how Locke and his gang use their targets’ expectations to manipulate their perception of events. 

Even with all of this detail, I appreciated that Lynch did not spell out every mystery.  For instance, I feel like I have a pretty good overall feel for the polytheistic religion of Camorr, but I don’t remember ever receiving significant information on any more than a few of their deities.  Or, for another example, I now know general Camorri views of several foreign countries, but I still know little about the actual inner workings of those countries.  In this way, I think that Lynch struck a skillful balance between fleshing out the world and not overwhelming the reader with unnecessary information.

As much as I loved Lynch’s fantasy world, I also enjoyed reading about the people in it.  Not all of the characters were as developed as Locke Lamora, but, at the very least, they each had some characteristic or personality quirk that made them memorable.  The dialogue contains a considerable amount of profanity, but it seemed like a believable speaking style for the many gangsters, conmen and thieves.  This was also a rather violent story, and one where it seemed that no character was safe from dying a horrible death.  I think this sense of danger really helped to heighten the stakes of the story.  Failure and death were not just abstract concepts to Locke and the others, but rather a constant threat in their daily lives. 

On the other hand, the death and violence in the story also resulted in a pretty high character turnover rate.  Many new characters were introduced throughout the story, and I felt like some people who were very important to the plot were introduced a little too late to be especially dramatically effective.  In several cases, the distribution of authorial attention to characters did not seem proportional to the relative importance of each character. I appreciate that Lynch has no qualms with letting his creations die, but sometimes I wished that the cast could stay slightly more constant.

With all the violence and the ever-changing cast, reading The Lies of Locke Lamora felt a little like riding a roller coaster.  More than once, I thought I knew where the rest of the book was going, only to be promptly proven wrong by yet another unexpected development.  I appreciated that the surprises along the way usually didn’t seem unmotivated.  There’s enough foreshadowing for each development to sense in retrospect, but little enough that the story still feels unpredictable. With its large cast, satisfying plot twists and exciting world, The Lies of Locke Lamora is a thoroughly entertaining story. 

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantastic start to a series, though it can also stand alone as a complete story.  Scott Lynch has portrayed a very detailed and immersive world, and I would love to learn more about it through his future novels.  There’s a fair amount of profanity and violence, but not really more than one might expect from a story about gangsters, con artists, and other criminals.  The many characters were easy to get attached to, which is dangerous in a story where the threat of death is never far away.   As the title might lead you to believe, this story is essentially about Locke Lamora and his confidence schemes, though the plot is delightfully twisted and unpredictable.  I think the main purpose of this particular novel was to entertain, and it does that spectacularly well!

P.S. The Read-Along for Red Seas Under Red Skies (Book 2), will begin next week! More information can be found here for anyone who's interesting in joining the fun!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

To Your Scattered Bodies Go 
by Philip José Farmer
Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971
Series: Book 1 of the Riverworld Saga
Awards Won: Hugo Award
Awards Nominated: Locus SF Award

The Book:

”Imagine that every human who ever lived, from the earliest Neanderthals to the present, is resurrected after death on the banks of an astonishing and seemingly endless river on an unknown world. They are miraculously provided with food, but with not a clue to the possible meaning of this strange afterlife. And so billions of people from history, and before, must start living again.

Some set sail on the great river questing for the meaning of their resurrection, and to find and confront their mysterious benefactors. On this long journey, we meet Sir Richard Francis Burton… and many other [people from history], most of whom embark upon searches of their own in this huge afterlife.”

This is my fourth review for WWend’s Grand Master ReadingChallenge. I’d never read any of Philip Jose Farmer’s work before, but I’d heard of the Riverworld series.  I vaguely remember watching the Sci-Fi Channel adaptation in the early 2000s, but I'm pretty sure it strayed rather far from the story of the novel.

My Thoughts:

My favorite part of To Your Scattered Bodies Go was the setting and mystery of the Riverworld.  It’s admittedly a very contrived environment, but that’s acknowledged in the story. Whether it is an afterlife arranged by some deity or a grand experiment arranged by some alien race, it is clear that the Riverworld was constructed with thought towards keeping the whole of humanity in comfort. The Riverworld was also presumably constructed to serve some unknown purpose for its mysterious creator(s).  I enjoyed seeing the many characters’ ideas on this central mystery, and I also had fun imagining what the purpose could possibly be.  In this case, I think the mystery might be much more fascinating than any actual answer that may be eventually given.

In the Riverworld, all of humanity, from all different cultures and historical periods, live together.  With so many different perspectives and life philosophies, and so many real historical figures to draw on, I think this premise has a lot of potential.  Unfortunately, I don’t really feel as though the novel capitalized on this potential.  For one thing, the different cultures did not seem particularly distinct.  For instance, a Neanderthal man seemed surprisingly similar in views and temperament to a Victorian gentleman.  I feel like it could have been a much more interesting story if it had engaged with the dramatic differences in worldview between cultures that span the whole of human history.

While the story didn’t significantly feature cultural differences, it did cast a very cynical eye toward the tendency of human beings to create conflict.  In a world where everyone was set on equal ground, with no pain, illness, or shortage of resources, people began almost immediately to establish hierarchies.  Despite the fact that there was plenty of food, drink, and luxuries (drugs, etc.) for all, many were quick to use force to establish inequalities in wealth and power.  This seemed very realistic to me.  While I don’t think hierarchical thinking is THE tragic flaw in humanity, I do think that many people pursue power for power’s sake—not just to gain control of limited resources.

Despite its fascinating central mystery, and the opportunity to use the world explore cultural differences and human nature, To All Your Scattered Bodies Go seems to be mostly a boy’s adventure story.  The characters were fairly flat and not very memorable beyond the brief recognition of their historical period or real-life counterpart.  Each character tended to be introduced with an awkward little infodump about their previous life.  There’s also a character who seems very much like an author insertion, and who constantly spouts off facts about the hero (Richard Francis Burton).  I felt like, with so many people to choose from, a more compelling cast could have been constructed.

On that note, I was a little frustrated that, chosen out of all of human history, the hero and narrator was a Victorian gentleman explorer (Richard Francis Burton) and the first villain was a Nazi (Hermann Göring). I think that, even in 1971, it must have already been a little hackneyed to use Nazis as an example of human evil and guilt.  However, the situation was not quite as simple as that may make it sound, and Göring did prompt some interesting discussion of post-resurrection identity and culpability. The hero and narrator, Richard Burton, is essentially a real-life adventure hero, so I can see why he was an obvious choice for the protagonist.  However, he manifested enough of the attitudes and views of the typical fictional Victorian gentleman explorer that I found him very irritating as a narrator.  One of these typical attitudes is the remarkably blatant sexism that permeates the story. For a few quick examples:

"She was a product of her society – like all women, she was what men had made her …”

"Even if she had been a whore, she had a right to be treated as a human being.  Especially since she maintained that it was hunger that had driven her to prostitution, though he had been skeptical about that."

It seemed like Burton classified every woman he met as either a prude, a whore, or a nag, and he made it quite clear he had little interest in the women of the story outside of sex.  It seemed that most of the female characters had little relevance to the story besides being sex resources for the male explorers.  I know this may be a realistic representation of the attitude towards women in the 1800s, but that didn’t make it any less annoying. The narrator, the occasionally clunky writing, and the relatively flat characters dimmed my enthusiasm for the story, but I still think the novel has a really fun premise with lots of possibility for interesting stories to be told.  

My Rating: 3/5

To All Your Scattered Bodies Go is an adventure story set in a world that stretches along a massive river, where all of humanity is mysteriously resurrected.  The novel’s strong points were the world itself and the characters’ attempts to determine its nature and purpose.  The weaker points were poor characterization, lack of a strong sense of the multicultural tangle of the Riverworld, awkward writing, and the heavy dose of overt sexism brought in by the viewpoint character, a fictional version of the historical explorer Richard Burton.  There were plenty of ideas to like in Farmer’s Riverworld, but, for me, they were not altogether enough to overcome the novel’s weaknesses. I am glad to have read To All Your Scattered Bodies Go, but I doubt I will continue on with the rest of the series. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Read-Along: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Part 5

This is the fifth and final post for my participation in a read-along of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, hosted by Dark Cargo, @ohthatashley at SF Signal, My Awful Reviews, and the Little Red Reviewer.  What this means is...

Read-Along posts discuss a specific portion ofThe Lies of Locke Lamora and are therefore full of spoilers!  I will do a usual review post once the book is complete.

Today's section is from "Orchids and Assassins" to the end of the novel.  This novel was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to participating in the read-along for the sequel!

1.       The Thorn of Camorr is renowned - he can beat anyone in a fight and he steals from the rich to give to the poor.  Except, of course, that clearly most of the myths surrounding him are based on fantasy and not fact.  Now that the book is finished, how do you feel the man himself compares to his legend?  Did you feel that he changed as the story progressed and, if so, how did this make you feel about him by the time the conclusion was reached?

Well, he doesn’t exactly steal from the rich to give to the poor.  He steals from the rich to pile their wealth in a hole and forget about it!  I think he changed as the story progressed from someone who relied entirely on trickery to someone who was not afraid to use violence if necessary.  I still don’t think he would resort to violence without a very good reason, though.  I also think that Locke eventually started buying into his larger-than-life myth, which is one reason why he tended to overestimate himself towards the end of the novel.   Even Locke was forced to admit that he was not unbeatable when he chose to take on Capa Raza in single combat. 

2.       Scott Lynch certainly likes to give his leading ladies some entertaining and strong roles to play.  We have the Berangia sisters – and I definitely wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of them or their blades plus Dona Vorchenza who is the Spider and played a very cool character – even play acting to catch the Thorn.  How did you feel about the treatment the sisters and Dona received at the hands of Jean and Locke – were you surprised, did it seem out of character at all or justified?

The fight between Jean and the Berangias sisters was very tense.  I think it could have believably gone either way, since all three combatants were highly skilled fighters.  Perhaps Jean had a slight advantage from the fact that the Berangias sisters often fought sharks, where I imagine the strategy is quite different.

I was disappointed by how easily Dona Vorchenza was tricked by Capa Raza, but I guess it just shows the power of the Bondsmagi.  I enjoyed her interaction with Locke, though.  I didn’t see his punch-and-escape coming, though that was certainly bad judgement on her part.  I half-expected the ‘antidote’ she was holding to be fake.  The whole bit with the Satisfaction and the waste barges was hilarious, though. 

3.       Towards the end we saw a little more of the magic and the history of the Bondsmagi.  The magic, particularly with the use of true names, reminds me a little of old fashioned witchcraft or even voodoo.  But, more than that I was fascinated after reading the interlude headed ‘The Throne in Ashes’ about the Elderglass and the Elders and why their structures were able to survive even against the full might of the Bondsmagi – do you have any theories about this? Do you think it’s based on one of our ancient civilisations or maybe similar to a myth?

The true names reminded me of Le Guin’s Earthsea series, but I know the idea of names holding power is much older than that.  I thought that interlude was fascinating, but I don’t have any real theories about the Elders.  Perhaps they were mages that practiced an art that is now lost from the world?  Or maybe, as in conspiracy theories surrounding Earth’s oldest architecture, they were aliens!

4.       We have previously discussed Scott Lynch’s use of description and whether it’s too much or just spot on.  Having got into the last quarter of the book where the level of tension was seriously cranked up – did you still find, the breaks for interludes and the descriptions useful or, under the circumstances did it feel more like a distraction?

Every once in a while, when I turned the page to find an interlude, I would think, “Oh come on, why now?” Overall, though, I loved the amount of detail that Lynch put into Camorr, its people, its history, and its geography, and its culture.

5.       Now that the book has finished how did you feel about the conclusion and the eventual reveal about the Grey King and more to the point the motivations he declared for such revenge – does it seem credible, were you expecting much worse or something completely different altogether?

I was very satisfied by his motivations and goals.  I mentioned last time that I was a little disappointed that all he seemed to want was a gang takeover, but that I thought we didn’t know everything yet.  In the set of questions before that, I commented that I thought he was after the nobles of Camorr, or possibly the Duke.  Lynch also foreshadowed very early that gentling humans using wraithstone would play some part in the later story.  I am absolutely delighted in the culmination of all of these hints, most especially because I didn’t work out exactly how everything fit together before it was revealed.

6.       Were you surprised that Locke, being given two possible choices (one of which could possibly mean he would miss his chance for revenge on the Grey King) chose to go back to the Tower  – especially given that (1) he would have difficulty in getting into the building (2) he would have difficulty in convincing them about the situation and (3) he would have difficulty in remaining free afterwards? Did anyone else nearly pee their pants when Locke and the rest were carrying the sculptures up to the roof garden? 

 I suppose I was not surprised that he took that route.  For one thing, while Locke will use violence when necessary, he’s not cold-blooded.  Once he heard that hundreds of men, women, and children would be gentled by wraithstone, I don’t think he could have turned his back on them.  Also, at this point in the story Locke seemed to be a little high on adrenaline and the idea of his own reputation.  I don’t think, up until the point where Capa Raza was killing him, that Locke even considered the idea that he might fail there.  Also, yes, I was terrified something would go wrong with the statues and everyone would end up gentled (except Locke, somehow).

7.       Finally, the other question I would chuck in here is that, following the end of the book I was intrigued to check out some of the reviews of LOLL and noticed that the negative reviews mentioned the use of profanity.  How did you feel about this – was it excessive? Just enough? Not enough?

There was definitely a lot of profanity, but I didn’t mind it all that much.  All the characters were criminals, after all—petty thieves, strongmen, gangsters and so forth.  I would expect them to have some salty language.   

8.       Okay one further, and probably most important but very quick question – having finished, will you pick up the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies?


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
Published : Simon & Schuster, 2009
Series :  Book 1 of the Monstrumologist Series
Awards Won : Michael L. Printz Award

The Book :

” ‘These are the secrets I have kept. This is the trust I never betrayed. But he is dead now and has been for nearly ninety years, the one who gave me his trust, the one for whom I kept these secrets. The one who saved me . . . and the one who cursed me.’

So starts the diary of Will Henry, orphan and assistant to a doctor with a most unusual specialty: monster hunting. In the short time he has lived with the doctor, Will has grown accustomed to his late night callers and dangerous business. But when one visitor comes with the body of a young girl and the monster that was feeding on her, Will's world is about to change forever.

The doctor has discovered a baby Anthropophagi—a headless monster that feeds through the mouthfuls of teeth in its chest—and it signals a growing number of Anthropophagi. Now, Will and the doctor must face the horror threatening to overtake and consume our world before it is too late.”

This was the March selection for Calico Reaction’s Theme Park Book Club for 2012.  I fully intend to keep up with this book club, but I’d already read (and reviewed) the January and February selections, Redemptionin Indigo and How to Live Safely in aScience Fictional Universe.  The Monstrumologist, as a young adult horror novel, is a little out of the ordinary for me. While this is marketed as a Young Adult novel, I want to point out that it is extremely graphically gory, more so than I could easily handle reading.  I would recommend parental discretion.  This novel clearly kicks off a series, but I think that it also stands alone well as a complete story.

My Thoughts :

The main part of The Monstrumologist was set within a framing story that was present only in the very beginning and very end of the novel.  The idea was that someone external to the story had come into possession of a set of journals written by the main character, Will Henry.  This reader was unclear as to whether the story set within was true or merely a fiction dreamed up by a madman.  It was an interesting idea, but it didn’t really work for me.  Since very little happened in the framing story, I felt like it didn’t add much beyond a depressing glimpse into Will Henry’s future.  To me, the text also didn’t feel convincing as a journal.  The narrative voice seemed like an adult Will Henry recounting the experiences of his childhood.  However, the journal contained, in perfect detail, exact conversations, very precise physical descriptions, and explorations of Will Henry’s state of mind from moment to moment.  As far as I know, Will Henry is not meant to have perfect memory, so it was difficult to suspend my disbelief and accept the novel as a ‘journal’.

The style of writing in the fictional journals that make up The Monstrumologist marked the narrator as an adult Will Henry, rather than Will Henry at his age in the story.  The style of the novel, in addition to its small town New England setting, seems kind of reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft (which is interesting, since I read in an interview that Yancey hasn’t actually read any Lovecraft).  Personally, I found the style to be charming and occasionally amusing, though it did feel like a little bit like an affectation.  I think that the novel might be useful in building vocabulary for some teenagers, though I could see where some might find it a little too dry or overblown.  Here are a few examples of the writing style:

“Above me the stars seared the obsidian canopy of the sky…” (p. 35) 

“The morning light, streaming with glorious spring abundance through the open windows, flooded down the narrow stairway, yet it seemed as if the darkness at the bottom pushed back or acted as a seawall whereupon the light crashed and broke impotently against its unyielding edifice.” (p.70)

Despite its ornamented prose, The Monstrumologist was very much a monster novel.  By this, I mean that there were man-killing monsters of animal intelligence that needed to be exterminated by our courageous heroes, and this endeavor made up the majority of the plot.  As a result, the story was extremely gory.  I am not a usual reader of horror fiction, so it ended up being a little too much for me.  I wouldn’t say I found it terribly scary, but the descriptions definitely gave me a lasting queasy feeling.  In general, keep in mind that there will be many exquisitely detailed descriptions of men, women, and children being dismembered and eaten, and some detailed descriptions of people being eaten alive by parasites.  I believe I would say the gore level is higher than R.L. Stine, which is the only other young adult horror author I can think of for comparison. 

While the story was very focused on the monstrous Anthropophagi, the characters also became quite interesting through the course of the story. The main characters were Dr. Warthrop (a professor of Monstrumology) and his orphaned assistant, adolescent Will Henry.  They initially appeared to have a peculiarly cold, professional relationship, in which Will Henry was horribly neglected.   Their relationship develops quietly through the novel, and I was surprised to find it quite touching by the end.  Another interesting main character is John Kearns, an amoral monster hunter.   His vivid, devilish personality really brought his parts of the story to life. Overall, I can see that this story has a lot of room to expand, and there are interesting ways the characters’ relationships might develop over multiple novels.  Honestly, though, I can’t take the gore, so I probably won’t be continuing this series.  

My Rating : 3/5

The Monstrumologist is a particularly gory, slightly Lovecraftian monster novel, featuring Dr. Warthrop, of Monstrumology, and his often-neglected orphan assistant, young Will Henry. I didn’t really care for the novel’s framing device, or the conceit that the story was told from found journals.  However, I was charmed by the carefully crafted, deliberately over-ornamented prose.  It took me a while to warm up to most of the characters, but I was really interested in Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop by the end.   In my opinion, John Kearns, a cheerfully conscienceless monster hunter, was the most fascinating character.  In the end, though, I think the graphic goriness of the novel was just too much for me, so I probably won’t be reading the subsequent novels.  I think that The Monstrumologist would probably be most appreciated by teenage fans of creative monsters and extensive gore.