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Friday, September 25, 2015

Monsters (and Humanity) Alive Again!! Thanks to Mackenzi Lee







Mackenzi Lee’s This Monstrous Thing is rich in emotional content and detail, and it stays true to the spirit of Frankenstein, while finding a totally original way to incorporate it.  Ms. Lee takes on the mythic Frankenstein’s monster and gives it a serious re-tooling using great elements of drama (love, loss, denial),  mixes in some steampunk (steam-powered sleighs, robot men), and then for the final kick, that dash of monster pathos that should make us all think about what makes us human.   The end result is a monstrous winner!
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At first glance, I thought it just must be trite, a Frankenstein re-told with cogs and metal parts instead of bones and beating hearts.  But it had a moody glowering cover and looked ambitious, and who am I to deny myself a bit of steampunk (a definite weakness)?  And so it begins on a dark and stormy night as 17-teen-year-old Alasdair holds his brother’s new heart in his hands at the beginning of the book.  Ooh, well, that’s different … and horrible.  I’m in.  

From the first scene in a ragged clock tower high over Geneva, we move quickly to the details of digging up his brother Oscar’s corpse with Mary at his side, and glimpses of a secret that must be uncovered.  Alasdair’s head is full of details of his brother’s life and death as he implants the heart and brings his brother back.

Two years forward and there is no Mary in Alasdair’s life.  We meet his family, now just father, mother and Alasdair, living a life as purveyors of finely crafted mechanical toys and also – in the secret, locked, half of their lives – Shadow Boys providing mechanical body parts to people.  Whether injured through accident or the recent French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, people with mechanical parts – clockworks -- are treated publicly as inhuman and second-class, made to shift aside for “real” people and sometimes spit on in the streets.  Though these mechanical parts have been used in a hundred different ways to save people’s lives and productivity, making them is outlawed and these clockworks are made to suffer for their differentness.  Some parents would even deny their own child as a monster, seemingly preferring death to a mechanical alteration.
Into this world Alasdair receives a copy of a book entitled Frankenstein and written by an anonymous author.  What?  Never did I expect the book Frankenstein itself to drop into the middle of the action as a plot twist.

It is clear that Mackenzi Lee is very skillful at portraying human interactions and emotions.  Alasdair’s pain, joy and frustration when he considers growing up with Oliver and often in his shadow as the less flamboyant younger brother are burdens he carries with him, along with his anxiety and guilt about the current state of affairs, and Ms. Lee makes the scenes flow realistically and with genuine emotion.  In order to have a future, Alasdair must find a way to appreciate his own gifts and separate from both his past and a very difficult present.  It’s a journey that is easy to commit to, though, as there is a lot to think about during the ride.  In the end it is not just a story about Alasdair and his family, but also a story about the impact individuals can have in changing the world around them.

I fell in love with this book a little.  Not just because Ms. Lee writes in a way that makes characters feel like real people.  Not just because she doesn’t allow her characters the easiest route out of a difficult situation.  But because This Monstrous Thing did not shy away from the myth that is Frankenstein but instead took on the classic without being afraid to add some new elements.  A definite re-charge for the classic tale of humanity pushed to its limits.


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