The City of Dr Moreau by J.S. Barnes
Titan, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Set after the events of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, The City of Dr Moreau follows the next stage in the lives of Edward Prendick and the island’s inhabitants.
Coral Mayfield works in her mother’s boarding house, taking in all sorts with minimal questions asked. One night, a stranger with a pram arrives, wanting lodgings for himself and his ward. But when Coral checks in on them the following day, the man has been killed by other lodgers who wanted the stranger’s ward, an unusual baby covered in fur with pointed ears. Fleeing the boarding house, Coral embarks on a lifelong quest to have her “son” recognised as a person and treated with respect.
I’ll start my review with a disclaimer that while I am aware of The Island of Dr Moreau and have seen a film of it, I haven’t read the original source material. However, I didn’t let that stop me with this story. After all, I studied 19th-century literature and Dracula’s Child by J.S. Barnes was fantastic, in keeping with the source material, so I felt in safe hands.
The story started promisingly enough with a group of men heading out to arrest Dr Moreau for his genetic crimes. Tension builds to a creeping, body horror climax with the death of some characters and others will mentally never recover again. Then the story jumps to other characters on the edge of the action, reacting to, not controlling the events. Again, I wasn’t initially phased by this, but there are so many characters, and their journey into the action is quite winding that the book felt really long while actually being less than 350 pages. Also, some characters come into the novel once, have a chapter where they briefly brush up against the plot, then vanish, never to be mentioned again. This continues right the way to the end, where a female assassin has one chapter as she tries to kill what passes for a main character in this story. The sheer number of characters and their fleeting on-page time meant I didn’t connect on an emotional level with them or their plight.
Another area that kept me from really engaging was the choice of points of view. We hear about character deaths not from the person who will be most affected but by someone who vaguely knew them. This also meant that some events I would love to have experienced first-hand are “told” instead.
That aside, however, The City of Dr Moreau has a perceptive message about society and its treatment of the Have-Nots. Villagers from the original island are stolen from their Eden and forced into an underground city to entertain the wealthy elite. As we are currently re-examining our past and treatment of other societies, owning our past atrocities and addressing the missing history of people of colour in our background, The City of Dr Moreau is fresh, poignant and relevant.
While I didn’t have the emotional draw I look for when I read, I found The City of Dr Moreau a thought-provoking moral tale that is in the spirit of the time-period Barnes is imitating. A fast-paced action piece could not have done that.