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Series Review: The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey

October 19, 2013 1 comment

Introduction:
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.

Bird on a cross against the moon.Summary:
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.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.Review:
There is a lot going for this series that makes it unique and highly recommendable, particularly among its competitors in YA.

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.

Tree and birds silhouetted against a moon and a green background.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.

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge.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

Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review, 5 stars
The Curse of the Wendigo, review, 5 stars
The Isle of Blood, review, 4 stars
The Final Descent, review, 4 stars

Book Review: The Final Descent by Rick Yancey (Series, #4)

October 17, 2013 1 comment

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge. Summary:
The man investigating the folios found with an elderly man who claimed to be over a hundred years old and named Will Henry has reached the final folio containing what this elderly man claimed to have been his life story.  The final folio is discombobulated and poetic, and so the investigator arranges it for us to read following the style of Dante’s Inferno.  And what a story it tells.

Will Henry is now a bitter, cold teenager still serving Dr. Warthrop.  When a man shows up at the door claiming to have a previously thought extinct monstrous snake’s egg for sale, Will Henry takes the acquisition into his own hands.  When they bring the egg to New York City for the annual meeting of Monstrumologists, Dr. Warthrop begins to question Will Henry’s loyalty, and Will Henry increasingly ignores all advice, going off on his own bloody ideas.  What direction will Will Henry’s and Dr. Warthrop’s lives ultimately take?

Review:
There were hints throughout the Monstrumologist series that it was going to continually descend to a dark place.  But I must admit I was slightly fooled by the idea put forth multiple times that Will Henry at least for part of his life is happily married.  I thought there would be a glimmer of hope in the ending.  Boy was I wrong.  This is an incredibly dark book, and a series ending that surprised me.  While still a strong read, it didn’t hold all the all-encompassing power and grotesque beauty I found in the first two entries in the series.

Yancey takes the poetic language found in the first three books and kicks it up a notch with the inclusion of the Dante-styled method for dividing the book into sections.  Beyond that, the language itself becomes increasingly poetic.  One line that is repeated a few times throughout the book is:

Time is a line. But we are circles. (page 4)

I found both the structure and the language interesting and gorgeous, and I really appreciate their inclusion in YA literature.  I can imagine that many of the younger readers of the book might never have read Dante and seeing this structure in this book might spur them on to check it out.  One thing that I’ve enjoyed throughout the series is that Yancey doesn’t shy away from challenging YA readers, and I’m glad to see that continued here.

The monster in this story is delightfully terrifying.  An egg that hatches a snake that eats its prey from the inside out? There’s nothing not terrifying about that.  Plus the monster is revealed early on, a nice change of pace from The Isle of Blood where we’re left to wonder about it for a long time.  There is also a secondary, surprise monster later on that I found to be a disgustingly nice touch.

The plot is quite complex, and yet also makes sense when various aspects of it are revealed.  It also manages to still be fresh, even though The Curse of the Wendigo was also set half in New York City.  The plot revolves much more around Will Henry and his choices and his personality than around the monster itself, which is appropriate.  Dr. Warthrop’s choices are also touched upon, but how everything has affected Will Henry is truly the focus of the plot.  It’s an interesting psychiatric study, and I was left truly wondering how things could possibly have worked out differently for either Will Henry or Dr. Warthrop.  There are no easy answers, and that gray area is a great setting for horror.

The book spends a lot of time wondering both what makes a monster and if madness can be avoided or escaped.  The first is a question addressed earlier in the series, and I think Yancey deals with it eloquently.  The second takes quite a dark turn in this book, and I was left feeling empty, hopeless, and saddened.

Madness is a wholly human malady borne in a brain too evolved—or not quite evolved enough—to bear the awful burden of its own existence. (page 170)

It’s certainly valid to view madness as an inescapable pariah for some.  I suppose I just have more hope for the world than that.  That’s what left me disappointed with the ending.  I wanted more hope.  Other readers might be less bothered by the tragic end.

Overall, this is a strong final entry in the acclaimed Monstrumologist series.  The poetic language is beefed up with a Dante style structure, and the plot is complex, following the ultimate impact on Will Henry of growing up as Dr. Warthrop’s apprentice in Monstrumology.  Some readers may be disappointed or overly saddened by the ending lacking a glimmer of hope but others will enjoy its incredibly dark turn.  Readers of the previous three books should not miss this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review
The Curse of the Wendigo, review
The Isle of Blood, review

Book Review: The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey (Audiobook narrated by Steven Boyer) (Series, #3)

April 29, 2013 2 comments

Tree and birds silhouetted against a moon and a green background.Summary:
Will Henry states that this is a story that Dr. Warthrop did not want told…and proceeds to tell it anyway.  When a British man shows up with a package being delivered under duress, Dr. Warthrop is ecstatic to realize it is the nest of the Magnificum–the holy grail of monstrumology.  Dr. Warthrop decides to leave Will Henry in New York while he pursues this beast.  But when his monstrumologist companion returns claiming that Warthrop is dead, Will Henry and two fellow monstrumologists travel to Europe to track him–or his body–down.

Review:
Not as engaging or thought-provoking as the first two books in the series, I can only hope that this third entry is suffering from the common penultimate book malady where the book which must set everything up for the finale of the series can sometimes drag.

There are two problems in this entry that make it fail to be as engaging or thrilling as the first two books.  First, Will Henry is left behind in New York for a significant portion of the novel.  We are thus left with a whiny teenager bemoaning Warthrop’s choice to be responsible for once and keep him out of danger.  We also are left with very little action for far too large a portion of the book.  The second issue is perhaps a bit of a spoiler but suffice to say that the monster is disappointing and its disappointment is easily predicted.  If we had a lot of action with a disappointing monster, that’s still engaging.  If we had less excitement with a surprising, phenomenal monster, that’s still thrilling.  The combination of the two, though, prevents this thriller from being as thrilling and engaging as it should be.

Of course there are other elements that still worked, which is why I kept reading it.  Yancey’s writing is, as ever, beautiful to read (or listen to) and contains much depth.

“So many times we express our fear as anger…, and now I think I wasn’t angry at all, but afraid. Terribly, terribly afraid.”

The settings are unique, and the characters are strong and leap off of the pages.  Will Henry becomes more fully fleshed-out in this entry as we start to see his descent into a love affair with monstrumology.  We also get to see Warthrop at what he himself perceives of as his lowest point.  It’s a dark bit of characterization but it works very well for the story Yancey is telling.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed, purely because the first two entries in the series were so phenomenal.  The third book is still a very good book.  Fans might be a bit disappointed, depending on how attached they are to the unique thriller aspect of the series, but the characters and writing still make this well worth the time.  Fans will remain in eager anticipation of the final entry in the series.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Previous Books in Series
The Monstrumologist, review
The Curse of the Wendigo, review