It has been two hundred years since an eighteen-year old Mary Shelley gave life to one of the most haunting novels of all time and the first true work of science fiction, so Kiersten White’s retelling of ‘Frankenstein’ couldn’t come at a more perfect time. To think that the original book was written when a young girl accepted the challenge of writing a ‘ghost story’, and she originally didn’t lay claim to her own work.
Kiersten White has chosen to write ‘Dark Descent’ as a retelling from Elizabeth Lavenza’s perspective, a feminist retelling if there possibly can be one, set in a time when women were taught to be objects to be acquired.
In Shelley’s story, Elizabeth Lavenza (later to become Frankenstein) is a ‘gift’ given to Victor Frankenstein, a socially awkward child, and she is taken in by the affluent Frankenstein family in Geneva, saving her from her own mother and a life of destitution. Young Elizabeth tries desperately to win the favors of the volatile Victor, and to secure her place in the Frankenstein household, and soon brings in another young girl, Justine, much like herself, saving her from a life similar to her own. Justine Moritz is brought into the home as a governess to the other Frankenstein children, a calling that she is a natural at, and she and Elizabeth become fast friends. Much of this background is given to the reader by way of flashback interludes, as are the times that Elizabeth and Victor spent together back in Geneva before he leaves.
‘Dark Descent’ traces Elizabeth’s and Justine’s footsteps as they travel to Ingolstadt to find Victor - and his friend, Henry - which is where he went to continue ‘his studies’, but recently haven’t heard from. Following clues that are found in his letters home, they don’t have much to go on, but Elizabeth fears Victor’s obsessions and fevers have overcome him, and only she knows how to help him.
She also comes to the realization of what his experiments really signify, and wants to protect them from being discovered.
Without going further (maybe there are some people out there who don’t know the Frankenstein tale), what I will say is that this is a captivating, dark, and tragic story; times were bleak for many, and even more dismal for women, and this is made painfully clear in this retelling. White has made sure to paint a vivid picture of the ugly prospects that women had in the times of Elizabeth Frankenstein: the choices she mulls over in her head constantly are framed by how society judged women’s place in society and expected them to behave. None of that was science-fiction, and it provides a fascinating historical perspective, and leading questions into feminism. It’s not by coincidence that Shelley herself was the daughter of radical social philosophers, with her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, being a writer of one of the most important founding works on family structure and women’s education in the eighteenth-century.
*It’s worth noting too, that the backstory and tumultuous early life of Elizabeth mirrors that of Mary Shelley (brought up by foster parents, suffered a lot of losses in her life). I find this fascinating, and feel that this permeates the writing of the original novel, and White tries to reflect this shadowing of tumultuousness, particularly in the flashbacks.
Initially I found the book slow to get into, but I later likened it to the slow discoveries that Elizabeth was making, and how the travel at the time must have felt, and I realized that this is the type of novel that I didn’t need to rush through after all. That said, at about half way, the pace picked up considerably and I didn’t want to put it down. Once the ‘monster’ comes into the story, everything seems to happen almost too quickly, and I had a lot of overwhelming emotions in the second half of the book that made it a weightier read as it went on, descending further into grief and desperation. The title is incredibly apt in that respect. I also especially love that the tone and prose feel in keeping with the period; Kiersten did an excellent job with this.
Few works of fiction can garner the status of crossing so many genres (horror, romance, sci-fi, literary fiction), have affected pop culture and so many types of media, for so many generations, and with one mention of the title, conjure up so vivid images and visceral reactions to its central story. Kiersten White has captured those images and the emotions effectively inside her version, without the cartoonish depiction of the modern monster, returning him to Shelley’s imagining. Upon reading, there is a sense that Elizabeth and the monster have much in common, and the misunderstanding from the world around them is palpable. There is a distinct uneasiness at the end though, and much like the end of the ‘Frankenstein’, and even ‘Dracula’, you’re left with the feeling that things are unfinished, and that the myth will continue. It’s a feeling I relish. If you have a taste for dark, gothic, or classic fiction, give this one a read; it’s also a fabulous pick especially for lovers of classic horror and science-fiction. Thank you, Mary Shelley!
*Kudos as always to Regina Flath for her brilliant design of the cover. Stunning.
Beneath the surface of Mars human mine gases that will eventually lead to the terraforming and colonization of the red planet, but they have been lied to. Red Rising by Pierce Brown is a dystopian young adult novel following a member of the lowest caste in humanities future attempting to position himself within the highest caste to lead a future rebellion for the betterment of all.
Darrow, a member of the lowly Reds, within days sees the end of his dreams of family and success in mining in his colonial town underneath the surface of Mars and is ready to die only to be dug up and shown the surface of Mars full of cities and vegetation that was said to be centuries away. Feeling betrayed by his society not only for the injustice against himself but his people as well, Darrow agrees to undergo numerous surgeries to appear as a member of the highest caste in society, the Golds. Through training and education he is able to pass the entrance exam of The Institute of Mars where young people of the caste compete to prove their potential as leaders so they can govern the Society in the future. Darrow makes friends only on the first night is forced to kill one or be killed himself in The Institute’s first test. What follows for the rest of the book is not only Darrow but every Gold at The Institute learning what it means to rule the Society that has lasted for centuries, but through he makes mistakes Darrow learns and is able to become a leader amongst the students and eventually is able to emerge as the competition’s victor in an unorthodox manner especially as outside forces attempt to have another student win for personal pride.
After waiting years to read this book, it was about 40% into the book that I realized that Red Rising was essentially “The Hunger Games in space” with elements of Divergent and other young adult dystopian series thrown in for good measure by the time I finished. I realize that authors borrow elements from other authors, but Brown rips off of The Hunger Games is so blatantly bad that it hurt. Frankly the mixture of so many things from other series could have worked if they were written well, but in this book it wasn’t. On top of that, what Darrow goes through to appear as a Gold seems to be stretching credibility especially since the Society’s “Quality Control” performs tests on him, including blood which has DNA that should show he wasn’t born a Gold. Though the action in the book was the best feature, the plot just didn’t live up to the hype especially after realizing how much is borrowed and not written in an interesting way from a new angle.
Red Rising might be enjoyed by numerous readers, but I’m not one of them and frankly while I got through the book I’m not interested in seeing what happens next. So I’m selling this book and the other two books in the first trilogy to a friend who is really into young adult dystopia and hope he enjoys it more than myself.
Quote that just sticks with me:
“It’s funny how it only takes one person taking the time to show you they care for all that bad shit to not seem so bad for a moment. It’s not like the demons go anywhere. What haunts you is still right there when you go back under, but that one gesture from one person can bring you to the surface for a second or two. And for a very long time, all I’d really needed was to come up for air.”
This book is really bleak overall, which would normally put me off, but Joy has managed to keep Jacob just above all the shit that's trying to drown him.
In fact, I can't even being to explain how impressed I am with Joy's ability to keep this book from getting too depressing. Don't get me wrong, the subject matter is rough. Jacob's family is like shattered glass. His mom is an addict, his dad is a drug pusher and yet, somehow, Jacob still shines through. He's not perfect. He's not even close to being a normal young adult, because of everything that he lives through on a daily basis, but he has a huge heart. He has some empathy and avoids the "meanness" that his dad radiates.
I'm wondering if that heart is going to get him in trouble.