When I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival a few months ago, I heard someone say the words “steampunk Frankenstein retelling” and my ears perked up. It turns out that person was Mackenzi Lee, author of This Monstrous Thing, her debut novel. As you may have noticed by now, I’m a huge fan of Frankenstein. So, intrigued by this description, I picked up a signed copy of Lee’s book then and there. Alas, it took me quite a while to get around to reading it, but I’m glad I finally did.
This Monstrous Thing is set in an alternate history, in which early 19th century Europe is hyper-industrialized and clockwork is the basis of new technology, from new modes of transportation to artificial limbs. Surgeon/mechanics called Shadow Boys fashion clockwork parts for wounded citizens. But while this technology gives crippled men and women mobility and hope, the majority of the population considers it an abomination. Clockwork men and women are treated as second class citizens, and the Shadow Boys who build their parts are in constant danger of arrest.
Alasdair is the son of a Shadow Boy working out of a toy shop in Geneva, and he is gifted with a strong natural ability for linking gears and cogs. He puts his skills to the test by accomplishing the seemingly impossible–he brings his brother Oliver back from the dead using clockwork parts. But if a man with a mere clockwork leg is an abomination, what does that make Oliver? While Alasdair and Oliver struggle to find the line between man and monster, the situation in Geneva intensifies when an anonymous author publishes a novel called Frankenstein. Here, Mackenzi Lee takes creative license with the original text, quoting from Frankenstein itself, but adding in references to gears and clockwork. The novel exposes intimate details of Oliver’s resurrection, and Alasdair races to find its author before his secret is discovered.
Of all the retellings of the Frankenstein story I’ve encountered, I found This Monstrous Thing to be most faithful to the spirit of the original novel. The tale is not a simple horror story. And the monsters aren’t always those who look the most frightening. In this book, Mackenzi Lee expands upon Shelley’s original musings about the monstrous in all of us, and the humanity in those we many consider monsters. Lee also does justice to the gothic genre by including an abandoned castle, a creepy clock tower, and long rides across the border concealed within a coffin.
So if you’re a fan of Frankenstein, steampunk, alternative history, or simply fun yet introspective tales of adventure, this is one new author you’ve got to check out! I highly recommend adding this book to your holiday wish list. And once you’ve read it, come back and leave your thoughts in the comments!