Rating: 4 1/2 pints of blood
The cover art is absolutely stunning. It's beautiful and macabre, and not only would I veer straight for this book but I'd hang the art on my wall. Or, well, if I were a mad scientist I'd hang it on my wall, and you have to know I qualify for one out of two.
Twelve-year-old William Henry was taken as Dr Warthrop's assistant after the death of parents, due in part to his father having been the doctor's loyal assistant for many years. In Victorian New England it wasn't unusual for a boy his age to become apprentice to a professional, but Dr Warthrop is a monstrumologist, whose work constantly takes him places even grown men fear to explore. In fact, while the doctor's specialty is an open secret in the town where they live, nobody is ever willing to acknowledge what he does during daylight hours.
As such, it's less than a surprise when a frantic knocking on the door wakes William up in the middle of the night. The graverobber isn't much different from some of the doctor's other contacts, but the specimen he brings in astounds William. It's an anthropophagi, a vicious man-eating creature native to Africa with a disturbing physical resemblance to humans... minus the head. Of course, the anthropophagi are never alone, so New England must be host to an entire pod, and how they came all the way across the ocean is anyone's guess.
While Dr Warthrop becomes obsessed with the mystery the anthropophagi present him, especially when they start to show a window into a very dark past, the creatures begin their hunt. Outside forces will have to be called in if William and the doctor are going to prevent people from dying a horrible death, but the team hunting and investigating may not be much better than the monsters they seek.
This is absolutely one of the darkest books I've read. Descriptions call it "gory," which it is, but not for the reasons I was expecting. In this case, gory is not akin to splatterpunk; the gore is more like insects and maggots eating people from the inside out or a man's foot rotting to liquefication inside his boot. (Eating while reading this book is not recommended, by the way.) The monsters are honestly horrifying, the visit to the sanitorium has the gothic eerieness you'd expect from the time period, and the secret histories revealed are every bit as disturbing as the rest of the book. A comparison to Pan's Labyrinth would not be entirely out of place (although William's world is not something he'd create, nor would he want to).
All this, and it's marketed as YA. I'm not convinced it was written as a YA, but the protagonist is a twelve-year-old boy, and that combined with the current explosion of popularity in the YA section of the bookstore ensured the marketing folks figured The Monstrumologist would do well with the younger folks. It's a book for older teens and adult, though, due to language (advanced vocabulary, that is, not cursing) and themes and concepts that'll be a little above younger teens' heads. As for the darkness, well, I read horror and dark fantasy on a regular basis and I was surprised at how dark this went, so take that as you will. Some younger readers will be fine with it and some won't; some adults will be fine with it and some won't.
The majority of the book is written as William Henry's journal, an older man recalling his youth in vivid detail. It's mostly told in the moment, with occasional insights added from the perspective of age, and it works very well. The innocence and naïveté of the young William is a beautiful contrast to the darkness and the fluctuating morals around him, and presents a remarkably sympathetic character. The story is a delicious combination of mystery and adventure, so tightly wound together it's impossible not to keep turning pages. The end of the book implies there are more books to come, in which case I will be first in line to read book 2. An excellent story if you're willing to peek into the dark.
The Monstrumologist is available in hardcover or as an e-book and can be read online for free until the 30th.