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T n YA – The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey
Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist resides in a subgenre of young adult lit (and I hate that terminology) I’ll call “Apprentice Fiction.” Since kids like to read about kids, and more often than not, kids cannot be scientists or doctors or wizards, the main character – the young person’s “in” – will work for the genius or the lunatic or the hero. (I think I could even make a convincing argument that both the Harry Potter and Whatever and Twilight series fit into this particular subgenre.)

What is important about The Monstrumologist is not where it can be placed in the confines of the near-labyrinthine YA category but how delivers on its promises: It is called the Monstrumologist, after all, so there should be plenty of monsters and -logy (the study of ____), and it takes place in a foggy Victorian New England, so there should be a creepy-ass mood. To give a brief answer – yes, yes it does. William James Henry – a perfect smashing together of the names of two 19th century writers – is an orphan (he has to be; it’s a YA trope) who works for Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, a strict, cold, and brilliant hunter of monsters, who is equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Charles Darwin. (Note: the doctor’s first name is a reference to a monster hunter in Arthurian legend, but anyway.)  Within the first few pages of the book, the main brand of monster is introduced – a group of headless, teeth-in-the-belly cannibals called the anthropophagi – and we’re off. The book slows down considerably in several parts, but for a YA novel, The Monstrumologist keeps moving, introducing aspects of science, history, and (gulp!) evolution into the books more than 400 pages. Each character who is thrown into the mix is given a well-detailed back story, and though Yancey can be a little showy with his vocabulary, it totally works for the time period’s sense of verisimilitude. As far as characters go, Pellinore Warthrop is one of the most interesting in a YA novel I’ve read, since the Harry Potter saga. He leads the story along with a sense of purpose and force, and though he is a proxy for scientific principles of the time – and, well, today, I guess – he gives the novel a feeling of credibility it might not have otherwise garnered from me. (In fact, I found myself more interested in Warthrop’s conversations with his peers and with Will Henry than in the more overt horror aspects of the novel.) The actual monsters, the aforementioned anthropophagi, are horrifying and ruthless, less sympathetic than they are mere beasts to be dealt with. They rip and tear at flesh whenever they’re present in the book, and they almost seem nigh-indestructible for the technology of the time. Since they are basically just walking sets of chattery teeth, however, they lack the kind of depth that make them a sustaining piece of the novel. They tend to be objects to be acted upon, to be used to explore Pellinore Warthrop’s past, rather than driving forces of the novel itself. At first, in fact, with the book’s set-up, I expected the novel to be more like a zombie story than what it actually became (which is to say Lovecraftian), but the last third of the book tried intensely to develop the anthropophagi and make them seem less monstrous. It didn’t quite work, I thought, but I really thought it was an interesting choice to constantly ramp up the way we were supposed to feel about everything in the book, from the characters to the situation to the monsters themselves. Even the bloodier aspects of the book were presented with a gravitas that made them more sad and deplorable. Which brings me to my next point. The Monstrumologist is one hell of a gory and weird book. There is enough cadaverous squishiness for the hardcore horror fan, and yet enough story to make the gore an addition to the story, rather than the story itself. Actually, I have to be honest: I was a little shocked at both the amount and detail of the blood-and-guts aspect of the book. Yancey wastes very few opportunities to explore the heinous amounts of violence present in his 19th century New England, from horrific disease and dismembered children to monster autopsies, and sometimes this unflinching portrayal of death seems a bit gross-out, it also makes the book enjoyable as hell. Will Henry, the book’s ostensible protagonist, does play a large and major role in the book, but I haven’t mentioned him all that often because he really felt inconsequential to me. It may be my age which has done that, because I would fancy myself much more like Dr. Warthrop, but I also think it is a genuine flaw of the first book. He is a child, and children tend to be sheltered from violence, murder, and the like. Yancey attempts to remedy that by having Dr. Warthrop force him to witness more violence than a child should be able to stand, but it still comes off feeling forced. He is a cipher, and like the anthropophagi, is acted upon and used to drive both plot and character forward, he himself feels less like a character than a way into the world. Other than a few sections of the book that drag on far, far longer than they should, overall The Monstrumologist is worth reading. (The book clocks in at a whopping 434 pages, and by the epilogue, I was begging for the story to end.) Will Henry is a character who, it seems, grows over the course of the first book and may be able to transition into more of a leading role in the second and third installments. It has been turned into a series – The Curse of the Wendigo and The Isle of Blood  – so I’m ready to read and review those, as well. I’m looking forward to getting back into this world, which gets the mood of the times, at least in how I imagine it, just right.


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