In the third installment of The Monstrumologist series, The Isle of Blood, Will Henry and Dr. Pellinore Warthrop must travel to the other side of the world in order to find an unseen and terrifying monster, the nidus ex magnificum, outrunning Russian spies and contending with their personal relationship along the way. It is a long, complex novel, but one that is not as cohesive or entertaining as its predecessors.
As is the case in the first two books, a mysterious stranger appears on the doorstep of the good doctor’s residence, complete with the remains of a cryptozoological curiosity. However, unlike with The Monstrumologist and The Curse of the Wendigo, this time the monster is an affliction caused by something called the pwdre ser, rather than a simple and easily recognizable bogeyman. The infection is so severe that even the slightest touch renders the infected nigh-incurable, and through several plot devices, Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop are compelled to travel to the far ends of the earth to confront or capture another fearsome creature: the aforementioned nidus ex magnificum, an invisible, unseen monster. The book’s title belies what is contained within. The Isle of Blood implies a vast (and satisfying) amount of carnage, but the book itself is more focused on the difficulties of late nineteenth century travel. This is not entirely an exaggeration. The author would, no doubt, argue that anyone whose expectations could be set so firmly by the title deserves to be disappointed by what is inside the cover, and, indeed, Rick Yancey has constructed a far more complex novel than in either of the first two outings. It is a challenging book in a lot of ways, and not just for young adults. However, there is a big difference between challenging the reader and losing sight of what makes the first book so special in the first place. In my review of The Monstrumologist, I start off by calling works of this type “apprentice fiction.” What happens between the first book and the third is that focus on the relationship between the two main characters intensifies, and everything else falls away, like so much yellow newspaper. The books have never really pandered to a sort of knee-jerk gore factor, bending to the will of the bloodthirsty public, and yet the first one is certainly filled with violent, gory depictions of death, murder, and action. Yancey, more than most YA authors, understands the value of organic characterization, and he makes a concerted effort to make sure that we feel the human-ness of his protagonist and supporting players before setting off on some grand adventure. To be completely honest, it is a breath of fresh air in young adult literature. That is why the third book is so befuddling. I’m aware that Yancey wants to challenge the audience, to give it more than just another bloody mystery novel, but at the same time this book so far removes itself from the roots of what makes the series really good that it fails at its mission. Ostensibly, this is called The Monstrumologist series, implying that it is about (a) the study of monsters and (b) the man himself, Pellinore Warthrop. The second book, to its credit, scales back on the gore in order to flesh out its temperamental supporting character, and that worked, mostly. The Curse of the Wendigo is both character-driven and plot heavy, and it manages to balance both aspects fairly well. At times it loses focus but for the most part moves along at a healthy pace. There is also a sufficient amount of monstrumological study in the book, as well as a fair amount of titillating gore. That the middle third is somewhat tedious does not overly detract from the experience of reading the book. What the third book does that puts it onto iffy ground is that it consciously takes away the two previously-mentioned pillars of the series. Not only does Pellinore Warthrop disappear for vast stretches of the book (and sparingly interact with Will Henry when he is around), but the monster hunting aspect of the novel is largely, disappointingly absent. That the monster is “unseen” and ostensibly invisible does not adequately excuse the novel from supplying the audience with some aspects of monstrumology. Granted, the book is Yancey reaching for something quasi-literary, and I use the terminology in the best possible sense. He can write, and his understanding of story and structure are not to fault here. He wrote The Isle of Blood consciously and with purpose, and I can see the stitching and thread meant to make a quilt of a piece here. I’m just arguing that it doesn’t quite come together in a way that makes for a satisfying book. Elements of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and E.M. Forster can be seen throughout this young adult tapestry, as can the obvious Arthur Conan Doyle and Indiana Jones (to include pop culture) influences. And believe me, it was hard for me to get to the point of writing this review in this particular way, because I do love the multifaceted aspects of Yancey’s writing, and I adore that he is so richly schooled in the classics and uses them to imbue his novels with something really substantive. And I must repeat: These are not the books of a trend-chasing hack. Yancey is a wonderful writer, and well-versed in classic literature. But this book needed quite a bit more red meat to be satisfying. At times it is a spy novel, and at others it is a sea tale. Still in other places, it feels like a detective story, and finally it can be interpreted to be a lush horror work, as well. It is, I’d say, an elaborate adventure tale, and though it pulls off plenty, there is a disconnect between the genres, and as a result it defangs the tension so that the travel and the journey are what shine through. And, again, this is not what is to be expected from a book entitled The Isle of Blood. The last one hundred pages are so satisfying, and they are what the reader expects the majority of the book to be, so that is why it is so frustrating for the book to take so long to get to that point. I could spoil the ending in order to explain some meaning in the book that does redeem it somewhat, but then again, that would spoil a five hundred page journey, and I refuse to do that. That is not to say there aren’t some nice touches within the book. The section involving Rimbaud is interesting, if not riveting, and Awaale the Pirate is such a good character that it is sad he is not introduced earlier in the novel. Still, the heights are not high enough to counteract the monotony of vast portions of the book, and so it pains me to waver so much on the quality of the novel, but I would still have to say that people who have made the trek through the first two books should continue through the third one, if only to discover something different than the author of this review managed to find.]]>