REVIEW: Cadaver & Queen by Alisa Kwitney
Dear Alisa Kwitney:
In the mid-2000s, I read five of your chick-lit books, and graded all but one A or A-. For me that marks you as a Very Good Author. (The fifth book, your last chick-lit Flirting in Cars, got a B+ from me, so, still a very good grade.) In 2009, you had two paranormal werewolf romances, The Better to Hold You and its sequel Moonburn; I gave both of those Bs. Since then it looks like all of your work has been in comics or graphic novels, which aren’t my thing.
When I heard you had a Harlequin Teen novel based on Frankenstein out, I was beyond excited. A favorite author takes on a classic (one that I happen to really like)? Yes, please.
Elizabeth Lavenza is an American orphan who has traveled to Ingold Academy in Victorian England to study medicine, still a very unusual avocation for women. (She is mistaken for a nursing student many times in the course of the book.) She makes fast friends with William Frankenstein and his friend Byram, fellow first-years. Lizzie also quickly makes several enemies among the other students and instructors; the prejudice against her sex is strong at Ingold.
Lizzie finds out that Will’s older brother Victor had been a student at Ingold; in fact he was the school’s top student before dying of appendicitis the previous term. The reader has already met Victor, in a prologue told from his point of view, in which he is being operated on in front of his classmates in an operating theater. Ostensibly he’s a fresh corpse about to be made into a Bio-Mechanical, a sort of robot/monster created from the recently dead. But Victor isn’t dead; he’s been poisoned with an agent that paralyzes him and makes him appear dead.
Bio-Mechanicals are fairly new inventions, usually created from executed men and used for menial tasks (they aren’t good for much else). There is interest in refining the Bio-Mechanicals to turn them into fighting machines, but so far there only military use has been as cannon fodder. A device called a Galvanic Reanimator is used to create the Bio-Mechanicals; they then require a substance called ichor injected regularly to keep them alive.
Victor awakens from the operation in a hospital bed with only a vague understanding of who or where he is. He is shocked to hear the doctor and nurse refer to him as dead, and their discussion about how Bio-Mechanicals retain no memories or understanding frustrates him. Victor tries to communicate but finds he can’t speak clearly; when the doctor humors the nurse by allowing her to give Victor a pen and paper, Victor finds that he now possesses a wayward arm that would rather crush the doctor’s hand than write a note. He’s quickly sedated again.
Meanwhile, Lizzie and her friends learn more about Bio-Mechanicals when they visit Professor Makepeace, who Lizzie is hoping will mentor her. He does indeed prove more receptive to her than the other professors (it helps that he knew and respected her late father, a brilliant scientific mind in his own right). It’s at Makepeace’s laboratory that Lizzie meets Victor (as well as Igor, a Bio-Mechanical who is much closer to the shambling stereotype – he can only communicate in grunts and is only capable of menial tasks). She discovers a few facts that Victor is trying to hide from Makepeace – namely that he is as sentient as one of the living and that he has vague memories of a conspiracy involving Queen Victoria, the knowledge of which may have lead to his untimely “death”. Lizzie and Victor grow closer as she helps him learn to speak properly again.
There’s a lot going on in Cadaver & Queen – besides the main plot, there are Lizzie’s struggles to succeed in medical school despite her professors constantly stymieing her, as well as her initially hostile relationship with her dorm roommate, a nursing student named Aggie. There are restless villagers, concerned about disappearing loved ones and rumors that the school is taking them for body parts (yes, pitchforks and torches eventually make an appearance). There’s Makepeace’s frail daughter Justine, the subject of some of his experiments – but is he trying to help her get better, or is he using her as a guinea pig?
I noted years ago in my reading log that your weakness as a writer, IMO, was plotting. Your plots were all over the place. I definitely remember that being an issue with your second paranormal, Moonburn. It’s a big issue for me in Cadaver & Queen.
Powerful people at Ingold Academy are afraid of Victor Frankenstein blabbing secrets he’s learned. Do they kill him? Sort of but not really. Do they turn him into a Bio-Mechanical and send him far away? Yes, and no. It’s fair of them to assume that turning Victor into a Bio-Mechanical will wipe his mind, since that appears to be what happens with all previous Bio-Mechanicals (though those people were actually dead when they were reanimated; I’m assuming that’s the difference?). I can retcon that the villains think what they’re doing is somehow less immoral than killing Victor outright. But it makes no sense to me that they turn him into a Bio-Mechanical in front of a whole room full of classmates, any of whom could let the Frankenstein family know that Victor is not dead-dead but Bio-Mechanical-dead (there’s enough prejudice against the Bio-Mechanicals that I have to believe this would be a Big Deal to the Frankenstein family). Victor’s brother Will ends up at the school and yet Victor is allowed to roam the grounds eventually to do his grunt work. Shouldn’t there be concern about Victor and Will bumping into each other? I felt like I was missing something.
Further, there’s the whole arm business. My understanding of the lore of Frankenstein monsters – not necessarily Shelley’s original, but all the knock-offs – is that they are made of stitched-together body parts in order to create a more-or-less whole human with all the appropriate working parts. But I don’t understand the part of the reanimation process that requires grafting someone else’s arm to Victor’s body when he has a perfectly good arm already – he wasn’t mangled before he “died.” It seems more like an excuse to involve in Victor a weird and wacky “My Two Brains” scenario. That subplot actually had some intriguing aspects but it wasn’t developed at all.
Beyond my plot complaints, I felt Lizzie was sort of a limp heroine. I guess she was supposed to be plucky, but she lacked the personality and humor that I recall liking in your previous heroines. Victor was more likable but their pairing was vaguely icky because of the undead thing.
Ultimately, Cadaver & Queen was a frustrating reading experience for me. I really wanted to like it more than I did. My final grade for it is a C+.