fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDr. Franklin’s Island by Ann Halam

Dr. Franklin’s Island, by Ann Halam (who also writes as Gwyneth Jones), is a YA updating of The Island of Dr. Moreau. In this version, three teenagers survive a plane crash and wash up on a tropical island.

It is not a spoiler to say that the two girls in the story, Miranda and Semirah, or “Semi” as she calls herself, become victims of genetic manipulation. That’s on the back cover of the book. The suspense is not whether they will escape before the evil Dr. Franklin completes his experiments on them; it is whether they will be able to retain their humanity once he is finished.

Dr. Franklin’s Island is a quick read, about two hundred fifty pages. The action starts on Page 8. Semirah, Arnie and Miranda wash up on the beach after the plane ditches into the ocean. The first few chapters are spent addressing survival and adjusting to the emotional devastation. Miranda, whose parents are anthropologists, emerges as a natural leader. With her guidance they build a shelter and set a signal fire. Arnie begins building a raft. One day when the girls have left camp, they come back to find Arnie and the raft gone. Soon after that, a chance discovery leads Semi and Miranda to the secret compound hidden in the island’s dormant caldera. They think they are rescued. They are wrong.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDr. Franklin is a scientist and a madman, focused with tunnel vision on his experiments with transgenetics. It’s clear he has tampered with animals and humans already, as the girls see when his assistant, Dr. Skinner, leads them through a menagerie of cruelly humanized animals. Franklin says his experiments injecting human DNA into animals have gone as far as they can go. He plans to try the reverse, and Miranda and Semi are his latest test subjects. One will be a bird and one will be a fish. He will allow them to choose who will be which.

Halam includes just enough science to let us suspend disbelief. She describes the compound and shows us one failed escape attempt, making it plausible that the girls cannot get away. As the treatments start, both girls struggle to comfort each other and keep each other strong. This is a strong and touching part of the book. How do powerless prisoners maintain their spirit, their will, in the face of complete oppression? As Semi watches, Miranda gradually becomes more avian. Miranda is taken away, and one day Semi finds herself in a large saltwater tank.

…I look more or less like a manta ray, the creature they call a devilfish. Real manta rays can get to be six meters or more across. They’re nonviolent, but if they are badly provoked, they can leap out of the ocean and even crush a small fishing boat. Or so the legend says, in the Caribbean. I’m not as big as that. I wish I was. Then I wish Dr. Franklin would come in here for a swim. I would leap on him and crush him against the tiles. But I’m only a ray fish the size of a flattened teenager.

Not a lot of time is devoted to Dr. Franklin’s backstory, or to that of his conflicted assistant. Franklin’s character is revealed well enough by his treatment of the girls. The story is suspenseful, with some unusual twists on the usual trapped-by-a-madman story and good action sequences when they are needed.

Dr. Franklin’s Island is about the loyalty of friends and how we find courage when we are in the deepest despair. Halam raises questions about ethics, compassion and courage, in a suspenseful story that isn’t preachy. This is a book you and your twelve-year-old could read together and both enjoy.

Dr. Franklin’s Island — (2001) Young adult. Publisher: Semi, Miranda, and Arnie are part of a group of 50 British Young Conservationists on their way to a wildlife conservation station deep in the rain forests of Ecuador. After a terrifying mid-air disaster and subsequent crash, these three are the sole survivors, stranded together on a deserted tropical island. Or so they think. Semi, Miranda, and Arnie stumble into the hands of Dr. Franklin, a mad scientist who’s been waiting for them, eager to use them as specimens for his experiments in genetic engineering.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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