E. B. Hudspeth – The Resurrectionist
Length: 208 pages
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Started: 06 August 2013
Finished: 08 August 2013
Where did it come from? LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? Mythical creatures and anatomical diagrams? Count me in.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 22 April 2013.
Ever wondered what
the spine of a centaur looks
like? This book’s for you!
Summary: The Resurrectionist is two books in one. The first is a biography of Dr. Spencer Black, a physician in the late nineteenth century. Dr. Black was born the son of a grave robber, but his interest in anatomy and skill in medicine won him much acclaim. But he became obsessed with the pursuit of a hypothesis: that the mythological creatures, such as mermaids, minotaurs, and centaurs, were not the stuff of legend, but were real creatures, and in fact represented the ancestors of humankind. As he became more and more single-minded in response to proof of this hypothesis, he withdrew from the public eye, and began a series of surgical experiments, the likes of which had never been seen before, and has not been seen since, since Dr. Black vanished in mysterious circumstances before he could fully realize his life’s work. The second book is a reproduction of Black’s work The Codex Extinct Animalia, which contains detailed anatomical drawings and notes for eleven of these presumedly mythological creatures.
Review: This is a very, very cool idea for a book. This is also a very, very attractive book (as are all of the books from Quirk publishers, at least in my experience.) There were a lot of things I liked about this book, but there were also a few things I didn’t.
The first was that the two halves of this book didn’t really fit together, but they also would have been incomplete without one another. The biography of Black was interesting, and I think it gave a very evocative image of the state of medicine in the late 1800s. However, it was somewhat short, and more problematically, ended somewhat abruptly. The cause of the disappearances of Black and his family are not revealed, nor is the true nature of his final experiment. I was okay with that at the time, figuring that things would become more clear as I kept reading through the second part of the book. There are certainly some hints, but if there was a fuller message, or an answer to the puzzle, hidden in the anatomical diagrams or the text that accompanied them, it was too subtle for me to parse out, and so made the narrative feel incomplete and unsatisfying.
The illustrations, on the other hand, are absolutely gorgeous. They’re also – and this was what really caught me – anatomically accurate (or I guess I should say anatomically plausible.) I have spent a lot of time looking at anatomical diagrams like these (albeit of non-mythological organisms), and Hudspeth clearly knows his anatomy; to give you an example, he gets the right number of vertebrae for the neck of each head of the chimaera, although I think the snake head may be labelled incorrectly. (That may also give you an example of a) how big of a geek I am, and b) how closely I was reading the back half of this book, because yes, of course I counted.) I could tell that he thought about things like how the scapulas would interact for organisms that have both wings and forelimbs, and the extra musculature that would be needed to support the weight of a minotaur’s head. (I’m still a little bit skeptical that the muscles of most of the winged creatures would be sufficient to power flight, however.) So, yes, the biologist side of me geeked out hard over this book, although it did bug me a bit that his classifications weren’t taxonomically unique: the sirens can’t belong to Order Caudata within the Class Mammicthyes (which is fake) if the dragons belong to Order Caudata within Class Amphibia (which is real; Caudata are the salamanders, although if that’s the case, his dragon probably shouldn’t have had claws.)
So the second part of the book, apart from a few quibbles that no one but me cares about, was great. I don’t know if it would have worked independently of the first part of the book, although I suspect that it would – with a few touches, and maybe some more internal anatomy diagrams to complement the skeletal/musculature diagrams that are the main focus, the back half of this book would maybe a lovely coffee-table-type book (at a very strange coffee house, mind.) But as it was, the two halves of this book felt a little disjointed, and that detracted a bit from my enjoyment of it as a whole. 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: The first half of the book’s forgettable, but the back half is lovely and extraordinarily well done. And I don’t think it’s just med students and biology nerds who will like the illustrations; they’re lovely, and should appeal to anyone who likes the history of medicine and has an fondness for fantastic creatures and an appreciation for the macabre.
First Line: Dr. Spencer Black and his older brother, Bernard, were born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1851, and 1848, respectively.
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