8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Strange Star by Emma Carroll

A fresh take on the inspiration behind Frankenstein emerges in Emma Carroll’s haunting middle grade novel.

Title: Strange Star

Author: Emma Carroll

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Horror, Historical, Retellings

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication Date: July 2016
Paperback: 320 Pages

Strange Star

They were coming tonight to tell ghost stories. ‘A tale to freeze the blood,’ was the only rule. Switzerland, 1816. On a stormy summer night, Lord Byron and his guests are gathered round the fire.

Felix, their serving boy, can’t wait to hear their creepy tales.

Yet real life is about to take a chilling turn – more chilling than any tale.

Frantic pounding at the front door reveals a stranger, a girl covered in the most unusual scars.

She claims to be looking for her sister, supposedly snatched from England by a woman called Mary Shelley.

Someone else has followed her here too, she says. And the girl is terrified. This breathtaking new book from Emma Carroll, the critically-acclaimed author of Frost Hollow Hall, The Girl Who Walked On Air, In Darkling Wood and The Snow Sister, is a deliciously creepy story inspired by the creation of Frankenstein, and is brought to life by a leading talent in children’s literature.

Stand alone or series: Standalone novel

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Paperback


Switzerland, 1816. Villa Diodati.

On a cold, rainy night, four influential free thinkers–Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Dr. John Polidori–are invited to join Lord Byron at his villa estate for a night of storytelling. Tales “to freeze the blood” is the sole requirement of his guests–and young Felix, a former slave from the New World that now finds himself in Byron’s employ, cannot wait for the night’s festivities to start so he can hang on to every morbid word.

Something strange happens on this uncharacteristically chilly June evening, though. In the wake of a strange star–a comet passing through the night sky for months on end–a young girl with a unique scar on her neck makes her way to Villa Diodati. Near death, her clothes in tatters and feet rubbed raw from the distance she has traveled, the girl begins to speak–

–It is a tale of mothers and sisters, of ambition and hubris, of passion turned to the ugliest parts of human nature. It is, in other words, a tale to freeze the blood.

And her tale isn’t over, yet. For a monster rides in her wake.

Strange Star is the first book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading from Emma Carroll, and dear readers, I loved it from the first sentence. Atmospheric, sinister, yet ultimately uplifting, Strange Star is a story of perseverence. With gorgeous writing, a careful and faithful eye towards Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and nuanced characters, Carroll’s novel is a worthy fictional “behind the story” adaptation–more than that, it is now one of my favorite of the many, many works in the extensive Frankenstein canon. 

Strange Star is actually a tale, within a tale, within a tale. The story is narrated by a young man named Felix–a slave from America, bearing his old master’s brand on his arm, but is now a manservant for Lord Byron (it is high fashion to have a brown manservant). Felix is our wide-eyed, eager observer as he listens to Byron’s exceptional guests tell terrifying stories. Felix’s overarching story, however, is just the outer layer of this story–for within his tale, the true narrative lies with the young woman who stumbles into Villa Diodati near death, desperately looking for someone and to beat the monster in her wake. This extraordinary young woman, Lizzie, has walked and traveled miles and countries to find her missing younger sister–and Lizzie’s story is the true tell-tale heart of Strange Star.

An English girl from a small village, Lizzie and her family have experienced sadness and death, all when a comet starts passing through the night sky many months earlier and a great Scientist moves to town. Following a string of unfortunate and life-changing events, Lizzie is desperate to save her younger sister and escape the memory of a town plagued by superstition, mistrust, and the cruel edge of a scientist’s ambition. And the third tale nested within Lizzie’s story, within Felix’s story? That of a brilliant inquiring mind, whose ambitions have resulted in the most twisted and sinister outcomes. I love so many things about this interwoven narrative (especially as it echoes Universal’s 1935 Bride of Frankenstein‘s opening scenes with Percy, Byron, and Mary); Emma Carroll’s gift as a storyteller never, ever wavers, even as she changes perspectives and tale-tellers, even as she pays homage to Mary Shelley’s writing while weaving through the real history of the writer behind the masterpiece. The most impressive thing about this remarkable book’s telling, however, is how immersive it is–this is a story told by characters who live in 1816, but never once felt too modern or otherwise anachronistic, and never once did the story feel inaccessible to non-Frankenstein readers, or readers of any age group. This is a tale to chill the blood of both adults and young readers–no small feat.

And, of course, it is the characters who make the book so memorable. Clever and dedicated Felix, who dreams of a larger life; Lizzie, the driven sister who will do whatever she can to save her family; even Mary, as a sympathetic young woman, mother, and “radical” in a time where young women did not run away from home to be the unmarried companion to a man. I loved these characters all, and a few more besides.

In sum: Strange Star is absolutely recommended and one of my favorite discoveries of 2016–and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to glom Emma Carroll’s entire backlist now.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

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  • Cal Spivey
    October 7, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Wow. I don’t usually read middle grade but this sounds FASCINATING. And the cover is just beautiful. I’m definitely adding this to my TBR list.

  • Jessa
    October 8, 2016 at 7:40 pm

    I typically read quite a bit of middle grade because I am an English teacher. This truly looks like something that my students would enjoy!

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