I first read The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White in March 2018. This review was originally posted on my Goodreads account at that time. Minor edits have been made before posting here.
I had the privilege of reading an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of this book (working at a bookstore has its perks!), so my comments are based on that version. Therefore, I won’t directly quote or anything like that, just comment generally.
This book is amazing. It has incredible characters, stunning plot twists, and great, great writing!
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is a retelling of the great classic by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, from Elizabeth’s point of view. Elizabeth is a fascinating character here — so manipulative and always putting on a show. The fact that she is so adaptable and performative made me wonder as I read who she really is, and indeed that becomes a major question of this book. Elizabeth, as much as Victor, makes us consider identity and the effects other people have on our identities/personalities. Yet she has layers, too, because while she could have been simply a sociopathic, Gone Girl-esque dark figure, White gives her depth. Elizabeth loves Victor and her friends, makes mistakes, and has a strong moral code.
Victor is also great, true to the character Shelley shaped but with something new to make us think. Never before have I seen a work that makes it so clear that while Frankenstein is not the monster, he is. Other characters — such as Justine, Henry Clerval, Judge Frankenstein, the monster, and White’s fantastic addition Mary Delgado — are all well-written and each have key roles in the plot.
The plot. Wow. So many retellings and adaptations of Frankenstein do not stay so faithful to the source (looking at you, Kenneth Branagh), but this book changes the game. At its heart, it remains loyal to the novel. Therefore, when the diversions do begin to occur, they are all the more stunning. The way White uses implications and details from the canon to craft these developments and plot twists is insightful and delightful to read; she alters the course of the original story in rather significant ways in the end, but in a way that feels perfectly reasonable. Also, the plot twists made me gasp out loud and exclaim, “why didn’t I see that coming?!”
This is clearly a book written by a skilled writer who has the original novel in her peripheral vision at all times. She stays loyal to the source material while also bringing a fresh perspective (literally). This book is thoughtful, innovative, and utterly respectful of Shelley’s brilliant opus. The questions people have been talking about since Frankenstein‘s publication — questions of manmade creation vs. nature, identities and souls, religion vs. science — are all in The Dark Descent and explored so well.
What makes this book so special for me though, is that White allows a teenage girl to take center stage. In a world where women had very restricted roles, Elizabeth takes charge of her fate, and that is such an empowering message.
In short, if you are a fan of science-fiction at all, you should read this. If you enjoy spooky, thrilling books, you should read this. If you appreciate excellent writing with well-developed characters and some wonderful, memorable lines, you should read this. If you like the original novel and are wary of this retelling, trust me, you should read this!
If you cannot tell, I love this book; it’s made me want to reread Frankenstein AND read all of Kiersten White’s other books.
Overall rating: 9.5/10
Are you planning to read Dark Descent when it’s published in September? Also, what’s your favorite adaptation, remix, or update of Frankenstein and why? (Asking for a friend.)