Review: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

October 19, 2015
Snumpus

FrankensteinI think I might be a rarity when it comes to Frankenstein readers. I do not, ultimately, feel very much sympathy for Frankenstein’s monster. That’s right, folks, I have a cold, dead heart. And here’s why.

Our world, right now, contains a not-insignificant amount of people who have never known love. They’ve been abandoned, rejected, abused by their families. They’ve never had the love of a parent, a creator, and some of them have been rejected over and over throughout their lives because of the difficulties that painful start has left them with, like the children bouncing from foster home to foster home because they’re troubled, as if a child who has never had stability, safety, or affection should be anything but. And many of these people go on to be good. They go on to give love, even if they never received it. And if one doesn’t, if one commits the kind of murders that Frankenstein’s monster commits, if one becomes as ugly inside as Frankenstein’s monster became, we put them behind bars. No matter how sad their start, we still hold them responsible for their choice of who to be, because the fact that that choice is harder for some doesn’t really absolve anyone of the responsibility to make the right one.

The story of Frankenstein’s monster is tragic. If his creator had not been a coward, he could have been a good person. If humans were less inclined to believe that that which is frightening in appearance is evil in nature, and those to whom he reached for solace didn’t drive him away, he could have been a good person. But in spite of both of those things, he also could have been a good person. He just chose not to be. And that is why, although he is a monster with a heartbreaking origin story, he is a monster.

While I also certainly don’t like Victor Frankenstein as a person, and consider him a coward, cowardice being pretty high on the list of intolerable traits for me these days, I also don’t condemn some of the choices he made after bringing the monster to life. Most particularly, I think it would have been compounding his sins to provide the monster a companion. He would have been bringing another life into being to exist in slavery. A life without companionship, which might not have been the monster’s lot forever had he not chosen to turn to darkness when he did, is surely preferable to a life created to be lived as the sole companion to someone you did not choose and cannot escape. Two wrongs do not make a right, and I think at that point the only right available to Frankenstein was to choose never to use the knowledge of reawakening life again, and to die without sharing or recording it. Of course, being Frankenstein, he chose the least courageous way in which to go about that.

So it’s kind of remarkable that I enjoyed so much a highly character-driven piece in which I do not like any of the characters, but I did. I think even in my distaste for who they are, or who they became, I enjoyed how they were painted. Victor is a weak man, but as someone with an insatiable thirst for knowledge I can certainly sympathise with and relate to his infernal curiosity. And living in an era in which we all live our lives very publically, in which our constant use of social media can foster a sense of intimacy not only with distant friends and family but with people we barely know, I could appreciate even more the poignance of the monster’s connection with the French family he observed for so long. It made me think of the Five of Pentacles from the Tarot deck, of the figures bereft and miserable in the snow while just beyond them lies the church, its window radiating a warm glow, the spiritual solace and earthly community they are so close to and yet are denied, or deny themselves.

In some adaptations of Frankenstein there’s an anti-scientific bent which I dislike, and expected to encounter here, but was pleased to find that it’s not really there. The message seems less about slapping down the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake than about condemning experimentation conducted without regard to morality, which I can get on board with.

It’s surprising to learn that Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote this, as her prose has a lovely flowing quality that I think some modern writers could serve to emulate, although it does perhaps account for issues with pacing and contrivance. I didn’t really need to spend a chapter learning half of a family’s life story just so I knew why they were being visited by an Arabian plot device, and could’ve appreciated some of that page count being spent on more authentic emotional reactions and fallout from one of the major deaths in the story, to name a couple of the more significant dissonant notes. Still, it is a far more thought-provoking work than most of its adaptations would lead me to believe, and enjoyable on many levels regardless of where you fall on the monster sympathy spectrum. I’ll go put my heart in the microwave now.

4 stars

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #1), by Seth Dickinson

October 19, 2015
Snumpus

The Traitor Baru CormorantBaru Cormorant is only a young girl when the Empire of Masks comes to the shores of her island home. She knows nothing of conquest when their red sails appear on the horizon, but as they bring with them a new way of life, one which tears apart her family as it tears down Taranoke’s customs, quick-witted Baru soon realises the best way to overcome a conqueror who vastly outnumbers you: From the inside. To do so, however, she must forsake her home and prove herself a valuable agent of the Masquerade — starting with helping them secure their newly established foothold in Audwynn, the land that cannot be conquered.

Baru is a fascinating protagonist. She’s a woman, a person of colour, and a lesbian, born of a land where all of those qualities are accepted, indoctrinated by one where they are received with contempt to revulsion — the Masquerade subjects women who love women to ‘correction’ or outright mutilation, and considers Baru an experiment in whether Taranoki are intelligent enough to be entrusted with civic responsibility. She’s a savant, understanding the way money makes the world work and that one of the most potent ways to bring Audwynn to its knees is through its pursestrings; she reminds me somewhat, in her deft economical manipulations, of Cithrin bel Sarcour from Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series. More importantly, she’s really well-written, steely but human, afflicted by doubts and sometimes betrayed by her desires, competent in the more meaningful and realistic sense that she doesn’t avoid ever falling down, but knows how to get back up.

And, of course, she’s a traitor, in almost every meaningful sense. She’s a traitor to her homeland, choosing to adopt the Empire’s ways rather than find a Taranoki way to fight them, and her mother knows it — her mother shows it — and you can see that’s something Baru has to carry with her, along with all the other weights of secrets and broken promises. She’s a traitor to the Masquerade, someone whose true nature they would revile not only buried in their midst, but clawing her way towards their highest ranks with the dream of crumbling everything they’ve built from within. She’s a traitor to Audwynn. She’s a traitor to herself, because you can’t become as enmeshed in the system of the Masquerade as she is and not internalise some of its values, and even if she freed Taranoke tomorrow, you know she could never be wholly Taranoki again.

In the course of exploring all the depths of Baru’s treachery, The Traitor Baru Cormorant poses a lot of interesting questions about what really makes a traitor. Is it treacherous to betray the empire in which you’ve spent half of your life, which has protected you and fed you and educated you, in the name of your home? When you’re in pursuit of liberty, is it a betrayal to ruin and end the lives of those associated with your oppressors, or is it just collateral damage? What about those who aren’t even your enemies, but who can only be crushed as you climb over them towards your endgame? By the end of the novel, Baru has crossed lines that will make even the most cynical soul wince, but every step she takes along the way is so relatable. If a power greater than we could hope to fight with strength of arms swept in tomorrow to take our fathers, our faith, our right to love, our name, who can say who we would not betray to take it all back?

The Empire of Masks could easily have been a moustache-twirling stand-in for the evils of imperialism, and there’s no doubt that it does bring many evils with it, but the portrayal isn’t one-sided. Firstly, lots of good people work in its name, and alongside the more dastardly Masquerade higher-ups we do get to see a few of them, just harmless cogs in a harmful machine. And secondly, the Empire does bring enough good that you can see why people are seduced by it. They save innumerable lives by bringing with them medical advances such as vaccines and dentistry, they improve life for the peasantry with technological advances and public works, they put children in schools. If your children get to grow up because they’re vaccinated against a plague that took the lives of your siblings when you were their age, is it so terrible to call your country by a different name and say your prayers in silence? Well, history’s asked us that one many times, but it remains an understandable question for the person holding a sick child.

This is Baru’s story and she’s certainly the most fleshed out character here, but the secondary cast aren’t lacking in personality, especially the magnetic Tain Hu, a fierce Audwynn duchess who draws Baru’s eye. Everyone is imbued with enough life and nuance that the web of politics and double-crosses feels authentic, although there are a couple of occasions where coincidence serves Baru’s aims too finely.

On the whole, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an accomplished and engaging debut, and I look forward to seeing where Dickinson takes the story from here.

4 stars

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