Series Review: The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books. It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole. These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another. Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.
A nursing home contacts a researcher. An elderly man has passed away. He identified himself to them as Will Henry, but they can’t find any record of him or living relatives. He left behind four folios, telling what he claimed to be his life story. The first folio begins when his parents die in a fire, and he is left in the care of his father’s employer, Dr. Warthrop. In the 1800s. Over 100 years ago. And Dr. Warthrop is a Monstrumologist. He specializes in the study of aberrant biology, or monsters. And Will is now his apprentice. The first thing Dr. Warthrop tells Will is that Will Henry contracted a parasite from his father. Normally deadly, he is mysteriously a safe host. The parasite will make him abnormally long-living, and any contact that is too close will make him pass it along to another.
What follows over the course of the folios is the tale of the monsters Will Henry faced alongside and because of Dr. Warthrop. The anthropophagi–headless creatures with mouths in their stomachs. The wendigo–similar to a werewolf. The Typheus Magnificum–the Holy Grail of Monstrumology that may or may not exist. And finally the Titanoboa Cerrejonensis–a giant snake. There are these monsters, yes. But there are also the questionable choices and personalities of the various Monstrumologists, and the slowly unwinding monster inside a boy who has seen too much and been loved too little.
The question left for the researcher is how can Will Henry continue along an increasingly dark path when all signs indicate he eventually happily married his childhood sweetheart? And are these ramblings true or just the fairy tale of an elderly man?
Monsters and madness encircle Will Henry, Dr. Warthrop, the researcher, and the reader as the folios slowly reveal all.
It’s horror based in the realms of science and the grotesque. Wanton blood and guts, serial killers, etc… won’t be found but it also doesn’t shy away from bits of the criminal underworld or real bodily danger. Will Henry loses a finger at one point. The monsters are real and frequently either eat people or turn people themselves into monsters. It combines to elicit horror in the reader in the tradition of Frankenstein. It’s perfect for readers who shy away from slashers or crime novels but still want a dash of terror.
In lieu of a romance, the relationship at the center of the series is between Will and his guardian, Dr. Warthrop. Yes, the series repeats the common YA trope of an orphan, thereby getting rid of the parents, but just because there are no parents doesn’t mean that there’s no guardian/young person conflict. In fact, I think that having the conflict be between Will and a, to him, incomprehensible older guardian allows for a more free exploration of the difficulties that can arise in this relationship. The fact that Dr. Warthrop is not his father means that Yancey is freer to quickly move into the mixed emotions and misunderstandings that can so easily happen in this type of relationship. Dr. Warthrop has many flaws as a guardian, but he does truly love and care for Will. Will at first feels lost and no connection with Dr. Warthrop, then he grows to love him in spite of his flaws, then he slowly starts to loathe him. Whether or not this loathing is warranted is left up to the reader to decide, and I do think that Yancey succeeds at making it a gray area that each reader will reach a different conclusion on. This relationship gets just as much, if not more, time as the monsters, and it’s one of the things that makes the series worth reading.
Yancey isn’t afraid to not just use, but embrace poetic language and literary allusions. I was truly stunned at the beauty of the language when reading the first book, and that beauty continues throughout the series. It’s like reading an old, Gothic novel, setting the perfect tone for the world building. A YA reader who perhaps hadn’t previously experienced narration like this might after reading it be inclined to seek out similar writing, thus finding some classics. And even if they don’t, it’s a wonderful change of pace for YA.
Setting the story of Will and Dr. Warthrop in the context of the mystery of the modern elderly man, his folios, and the researcher looking into them lends an extra layer to the story that increases its complexity. The researcher is just as curious as the reader to find out more. He also provides some necessary historical facts and questions the veracity of some of Will Henry’s statements. Throughout the series, the researcher is wondering if this actually happened or if it’s all just the imaginings of an elderly man. The ultimate reveal still leaves this a bit of a mystery, letting the reader decide for themselves what they would prefer to be the answer.
The strength of the monsters varies throughout the series. Some are perfectly crafted, such as the anthropophagi. Others can be a bit less frightening or too predictable to be as engaging. This definitely lends to an uneven pace of suspense in the series and could be disappointing to a reader who is more invested in monsters than in the character development.
The ending. The ending must be discussed. *spoiler warning* Will Henry in the last book has turned into a dark, lawless, desperate character. He has been changed by what he has seen. His childhood sweetheart, Lily Bates, finds him frightening and lacking in morals. He blames Dr. Warthrop for all of his issues. While Dr. Warthrop definitely is at fault for not treating Will Henry like an adult and keeping him in the loop for his schemes, Dr. Warthrop also never taught Will to be so cold, desperate, or that it’s ok to wantonly kill. Will ultimately goes on an opiate and sex binge in a prostitution house. Dr. Warthrop finds him and pulls him out, in an attempt to save him. It is then that Willl finds out that the parasites he is infected with will spread with sexual intercourse and kill his partner in a truly grotesque manner, eating them from the inside out. Will gives up on Dr. Warthrop and all relationships and proceeds to travel the world aimlessly. The researcher ultimately discovers that Will later runs into Lily with her new husband. It is then that he reveals that Lily’s husband’s name was Will Henry, and he stole it as a pseudonym for these stories. So he never married Lily. Was never happy. He is now nameless. It’s an incredibly dark ending that leaves the researcher, and the reader, reeling. It was honestly a bit too hopeless for me. It felt as if Yancey was saying Will got sucked down into the monsters in his soul and could find no escape. I prefer to have a bit more hope in the world than that, particularly after spending four books with a character and growing to care for them. *end spoilers*
While I can still appreciate what Yancey was doing and what he was going for–a truly dark book–I feel that any potential readers or gift givers should be aware that it starts dark, gets darker, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
There is also a bit of a dearth of female characters in the series. In the two middle books, we get brief exposures to Dr. Warthrop’s old sweetheart and Lily Bates. That’s pretty much it. I’m ok with that, since much of the time is devoted to Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop. I also understand that the time period in which it is set definitely would not have had a female monstrumologist. I think Yancey tries to make up for this by having Lily be determined to be the first female monstrumologist, but I also think he steps back from this plotline in the final book, which disappointed me a bit. Essentially, be aware that if you’re looking for a strong female presence in the plot of your series, look elsewhere.
Overall, this is a unique series that deserves to be in any YA collection. It address young adult/guardian relationships in the rich wrapping of Gothic style horror narrated with a beautiful poetic language. Its historical setting and focus on the boy and his guardian doesn’t lend itself to a strong female presence in the series, although the female characters that do exist are good ones. Its darkness increases throughout the series, so don’t come into this expecting a happy ending. I’m pleased I took the time to read the entire series, and could see reading it again. Recommended to both YA fans looking for something different and Gothic horror fans who don’t normally do YA.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Source: Gift, Audible, and Amazon