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T n YA – The Curse of the Wendigo, by Rick Yancey

In The Curse of the Wendigo, Rick Yancey’s second installment in The Monstrumologist series, young apprentice William Henry James – Will Henry, for short – accompanies his erstwhile mentor and foster parent Dr. Pellinore Warthrop to Canada in order to investigate the disappearance of an old acquaintance and rival of his, John Chanler. John’s wife, Muriel, asks him to go on the mission, and it becomes clear that their past is more complicated than it first seems. The trip to Canada nearly kills the both of them, and it reveals Chanler to be – potentially – a human-ish creature called a Wendigo. (The Wendigo feeds on human flesh but is never satisfied, wasting away until an eventual death.)

In the meantime, a looming meeting of monstrumologists in New York City lingers in the reader’s memory, as Warthrop himself has received an infuriating letter / invitation to the event. The purpose of the meeting is whether or not to include mythological creatures in their profession. Warthrop opposes it; his own mentor, Abram von Helrung, is in favor of it. (Juxtaposition is one of Yancey’s primary concerns throughout the course of the novel.)

When Chanler, Warthrop, and Will Henry return to the States, Warthrop’s insistence that Chanler is not, indeed, a Wendigo puts him at the center of the debate of the monstrumologists. He ends up being pulled back into a love triangle from his distant past, and over the course of the novel, vast portions of the good doctor’s past become illuminated, making him an increasingly complicated figure in the both the audience’s and Will Henry’s eyes. These basic plot points weave a thread through the novel, but this book is much more than just an adventure for its heroes. Like any good piece of genre fiction, its purpose is to enlighten the reader of the protagonists’ deepest motivations, and the story itself becomes largely symbolic, which is quite the thing to say about a young adult novel. (I will, at some point, stop denigrating YA fiction, but like video games, it still resides in a region of pop culture that holds it in near-contempt. Luckily, Yancey’s novels aspire to be something more.) The Curse of the Wendigo could have been a simple retread of the first one, as many young adult novels tend to lack breadth, the authors unwilling to stretch the world lest the audience be alienated in some way. But Yancey has no such qualms. The flaws in the novel arise naturally out of the novel itself, and are flaws that derive from the novel’s construction and not some simple gimmick. Length, for one, and pacing, for another, hinder the overall experience of the book, though only slightly. Because of the book’s many settings, one would assume it to be faster-paced. Not so. The book sometimes grows sluggish in its many twists and turns. The book does move, but at certain points it seems to stop altogether, in between the acts. It’s as though sometimes the characters need to just sit around and wait for something to happen. (Which, it must be noted, is not entirely different from books from the end of the 19th century.) And indeed, the wendigo is a less arcane monster than the anthropophagi, but it is also less compelling. Yancey does a good job of couching the story in character, rather than relying simply on amping up the ferocity of the antagonist monster. The monster is used as a metaphor, and it also is used as a means for further exploring the history and motivations for Pellinore Warthrop. Through the whole of the novel, he becomes even more than a quirky character, a faux Sherlock Holmes, as he was in the first book. In The Curse of the Wendigo, he becomes a full-fledged person, someone with aspirations and secret emotions, and demons of his own. He is not merely a means for advancing the plot, and that is interesting. That said, one of the major flaws in The Curse of the Wendigo is pacing. Yancey is so in love with the world he’s created that sometimes it seems as though he overindulges, not unlike Stephen King. This is not necessarily a sizable complaint, though at certain points there seems to be a surplus of characters or plot threads, which slows the action to a slow jaunt. At times, Will Henry is sent off with minor characters, and even though what happens sometimes is necessary for plot, plenty of it could have been edited down to smooth out the edges of the overall experience. It also takes away from one of the major strengths of the series. The dynamic between Will Henry and Warthrop is what drives the reader’s attention, not necessarily the world itself, so any lengthy separation between the two characters is more apparent and trying. (The subplot with Lilly, for example, introduces a few ideas, and it provides the audience a nice mirror or juxtaposition with Warthrop’s love life, but it seems more a preamble than a satisfying, cohesive B plot.) This novel is even more filled with characters than the last in the series. It also features the existence of actual people, from Algernon Blackwood to Jacob Riis. The attempt is to give life to the world, and it works to a certain degree, but it also makes the novel feel somewhat like a Victorian Forrest Gump. Yancey makes a step toward substantive world-building. Most young people do not know nor do they care about Jacob Riis, but when they find out later (if they find out at all), they’ll perhaps be able to point to this moment in these books as an introduction to him. The ending is less climactic but is more symbolically important, proving that these works make more sense when they are character-driven, rather than simply plot-driven. The denouement delves into the end of an era, or the beginning of another one, the moment in all new things, when a transition must take place. It is a fine way to end a novel, and one that ignores the tropes of basic young adult fiction. The books are vastly different in tone and subject matter, and though they build on one another, they aim for different targets, and for that Yancey should be lauded. While The Monstrumologist is an entry into the world, The Curse of the Wendigo is another beast altogether (forgive the pun), a mixture of Joseph Conrad and something from one of the Bronte sisters, or maybe Jane Austen. It is the young adult series’ Heart of Darkness, and, indeed, metaphorically, the novel attempts to plumb the depths of Pellinore Warthrop’s heart. He is less a caricature in this novel, and he does not have to compete with a rival of his. He does, but in a different manner. The battle with John Chanler is done, and Warthrop lost it long ago. His novels do not take for granted the intelligence of the readers, and that lack of a patronizing tone is refreshing, given the pitfalls of other contemporary series and works of fiction. Overall, the Monstrumologist series has proven to be a wholly thoughtful, adeptly written series, and since there is a third book – The Isle of Blood – you can expect a full review next month.


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