The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
We all know Frankenstein: the evil genius, the monster, the frozen wasteland etc. But in The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein (2018), Kiersten White offers a new spin on the classic, through an origins story that traces Victor Frankenstein right back to his childhood, through the eyes of an unlikely heroine, Elizabeth Frankenstein.
We meet Elizabeth when her surname is still Lavenza. She is starved and bruised and about to be thrown out onto the streets, when she is chosen to go and live with the Frankenstein family as a companion to their young son Victor, who has everything except a friend. Elizabeth realises that she must do everything in her power to stay in Victor’s good graces — he is the key to her survival. So she does everything she can to please, despite the often disturbing behaviour that Victor exhibits.
Years later, when Victor goes missing, Elizabeth goes to track him down, along with her companion Justine. Her search leads her down a dark trail, where she discovers secret laboratories and unidentifiable body parts. Readers that know the story won’t find it any less shocking than those who don’t. If anything, knowing what’s going on makes it even more disturbing.
At the heart of the story is the abusive relationship between Elizabeth and Frankenstein. The reader is aware of the unsettling dynamics between the pair long before Elizabeth herself is, which only serves to increase the tension, as we root for her to see Victor for what he truly is. Though Elizabeth is seemingly plucky and dogged in her pursuit of survival, it’s impossible not to pity her vulnerability. The relationship with Victor is particularly pertinent given the current historical moment and the light shed by the #metoo movement.
Pacing is somewhat of an issue in The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein. The first half is slow in unfolding, which is arguably a nod to the classic horror genre and the time spent establishing a dark atmosphere before momentum builds up, but for a modern audience (and particularly a YA audience), this might feel unsatisfying. The story does build up to its inevitable climax, but readers will have had to endure the lagging pace to get there.
Some of the characterisation is also a little divisive. It’s quite difficult to like some of the protagonists. Victor (it goes without saying) is obviously meant to be despised, but Elizabeth is not always particularly likeable. She’s billed as an antihero, but it can be difficult to root for her in her colder moments. Even Justine, who is pretty much as gentle and palatable as they come, can feel grating. Again, once the story gains momentum, these issues fall by the wayside, but it is a little slow-going with character development at the outset.
Many readers will come to this book as fans of White’s previous work, And I Darken, the brilliant retelling of Vlad the Impaler — if he were a young girl. White specialises in putting minor female characters into central roles, which is a delight in itself, but one can’t help but feel like The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein doesn’t quite have the spark of its predecessor. It is a fantastic way to encourage younger audiences to pick up the classic on which her retelling is based, but they might have difficulty pushing through the first half of the book. For older readers, there might not be enough of a spark to hold their attention either, but there’s no doubt that fans of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein will appreciate the nods and references to what is arguably one of the greatest horror stories of all time.