Now, I’m not the sort of person who’s going to make fun of people who want sexy monsters. I’m proud to say that I’m one of the few authors to comprehensively treat that vital question, “How do you make a dried-up walking corpse attractive?” However, it is worth nothing that there’s been a recent upswing in the number of monsters the Internet has collectively deemed sexable. Vampires have been objects of sexual attraction for over a century; werewolves have a longstanding reputation for animal magnetism; in recent years, even zombies and fish-men have gotten a chance to shine as romantic leads. And truly modern creations like the Predator and Venom (of the Spider-Man franchise) have legions of fans who would be willing to take a walk on the wild side with them.
Out of all the classic horror creatures, though, Frankenstein’s monster has been somewhat left behind by this new trend. Like the Mummy and the zombie, Frankenstein’s monster has the taboo of necrophilia attached to it, and unlike the Mummy or the zombie, the monster can’t excuse away his undead nature via the use of convenient magic. His origin story is inextricably tied to mad science and all the gruesome details that come with it. Furthermore, he’s chiefly familiar as the Boris Karloff monster, and the subtleties of his original book incarnation have been overwritten in the public memory by the green-skinned, bolt-necked, grunting giant.
Alisa Kwitney’s Cadaver & Queen finds clever ways to solve all of those problems. Not only does her monster owe more to the intelligent, tragic creature of the book than the Karloff incarnation, but she kills two birds with one stone by rolling monster and creator into one. In this late-Victorian alternate universe where steampunk-esque mad science has created a whole new category of life, Victor Frankenstein has himself become the tragic undead.
Some spoilers ahead, so beware!
Circa 1901, Miss Elizabeth Lavenza is the first female medical student at the prestigious Ingold Academy, where pioneering research is being conducted in the creation of Bio-Mechanicals. These patchwork undead creatures, only capable of obeying simple commands, have been a fact of life for over fifty years and are chiefly used as menial servants or cannon fodder in European wars. Elizabeth, raised by her widowed father to be a pioneer in the innovative etheric engineering used to create these Bio-Mechanicals, has come to Ingold to learn all she can. Unfortunately, a childhood isolated from other children has left her lacking in social skills, and the general prejudice against would-be female doctors puts her at odds with most of the staff and students.
Meanwhile, a Bio-Mechanical is struggling to remember who he used to be. His name might be Victor, and he has the memories of one Victor Frankenstein, but his recollections are jumbled up with another man’s, and his new left arm–half grafted flesh, half brass claw–seems to have a mind of his own. He thinks his own best friend killed him, but why would the man do that?
Elizabeth’s rocky integration into Ingold leads her to the laboratory of Professor Makepiece, head of the School of Engineering and an expert in the making of Bio-Mechanicals. While there, she encounters and treats a strange Bio-Mechanical who seems more aware than most. Thanks to the innovative device developed by Elizabeth and her father, the Bio-Mechanical begins to recover more of his faculties, and the pair develop a bond. As Victor’s memories return and the situation unfolds, though, both of them come to realize that something is rotten at Ingold. The heads of the school are plotting something, and a lurking conspiracy seems to be going right to the top of government …
In Mary Shelley’s novel, Elizabeth Lavenza is a ward of the Frankenstein family and later Victor Frankenstein’s wife, tragically killed by the monster. In that capacity, she was a symbol of divide between Victor and his creation. When Alisa Kwitney makes Victor himself both scientist and monster, with the killer instinct inside the creature made literal in the grafting-on of a whole extra persona, Elizabeth is given a new lease on life and an opportunity to stand as a character of her own. While the Elizabeth of the original and the Elizabeth of Cadaver & Queen bear little resemblance to each other, it’s nevertheless encouraging to see an underappreciated character having some time in the spotlight.
For my money, though, Victor is the stronger protagonist. His flashbacks and memories blend together into a nightmarish dreamscape as he struggles to remember who he is and what got him killed in the first place. A later chapter is even told from the point of view of his alternate persona–that belonging to the dead man whose arm has been grafted onto Victor.
The background is appealing: a version of our world up to recent times, but with the mid-1800s discovery of reanimation principles that subsequently touches off an arms race in the creation of newer and better Bio-Mechanicals. I love it when authors explore old, now-discredited theories and say “what if this was really true?”, and the references to “etheric energy” and personality imprints remaining in severed limbs give the scenario room to grow in very interesting directions.
However, the latter half of the novel somewhat struggles to live up to its premise and characters. After a strong build-up, the climax feels rushed and uneven, and the conclusion leaves a lot to be desired in terms of resolution regarding the conspiracy and the future of the characters. Elizabeth makes a choice which, while good for her personally, is not so good for the rest of the world. After reading the epilogue, I found myself thinking “This has to be a sequel hook, because otherwise she’s just guaranteed that World War I arrives fifteen years early.”
(I exaggerate somewhat. How much, the reader can decide for themselves.)
There are also some concerns with tone. While in narrative voice Elizabeth does come across as an educated, genteel lady with regard for propriety, dialogue doesn’t always steer the same course. It’s a little off-putting to see characters flip from Victorian conversation to Millennial sarcasm.
Oddly, Victor’s undead status (which I expected to be a possible problem) wasn’t much of an issue for me. While there was some mention of Bio-Mechanicals essentially being the walking dead, it was also stated that they still breathe, eat, etc., and that Victor himself is an advanced form which lacks most of the gruesome aspects of the classic Frankenstein’s monster. In fact, the difference between other Bio-Mechanicals and Victor seems to be the difference between the movies and the book: typical Bio-Mechanicals have an unhealthy tinge and a slow, shuffling gait that conjures up Karloff (one is even named Igor!), while Victor is much more articulate, active, and–for lack of a better term–alive. Unlike with the classic movie monster, there’s little whiff of necrophilia about the romance subplot.
Overall, I give Cadaver & Queen a 3.5/5. It’s a strong effort and very highly-ranked for atmosphere, premise, and characters, but the awkward conclusion and tone left me wanting. In a way, I feel like the premise of the greater conspiracy was a little too big for what we had to work with. While I love the idea of the Bio-Mechanicals, and could happily read a whole series in this world that slowly built up to the level of the conspiracy, it felt awkward to jump right to international repercussions and possible regicide.
That being said, I certainly enjoyed the time I spent in the book’s world. As they say on TVTropes, Your Mileage May Vary!