I love the cover of this book and how simple, yet eerie it is. I wasn’t sure how scary or intense this book was going to be, but it ended up being really good and not too much! I love the historical fiction elements, the murder mystery, and the female empowerment all wrapped up into one book.
Thank you to Penguin Teen and NetGalley for providing me with an e-ARC for review! This is a spoiler free, honest review, and all thoughts and feelings are my own.
The Corpse Queen by Heather M. Herrman
Published: September 14, 2021
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Genre: YA Historical Thriller
In this dark and twisty feminist historical thriller, a teenage girl starts a new life as a grave robber but quickly becomes entangled in a murderer’s plans.
Soon after her best friend Kitty mysteriously dies, orphaned seventeen-year-old Molly Green is sent away to live with her “aunt.” With no relations that she knows of, Molly assumes she has been sold as free domestic labor for the price of an extra donation in the church orphanage’s coffers. Such a thing is not unheard of. There are only so many options for an unmarried girl in 1850s Philadelphia. Only, when Molly arrives, she discovers her aunt is very much real, exceedingly wealthy, and with secrets of her own. Secrets and wealth she intends to share–for a price.
Molly’s estranged aunt Ava, has built her empire by robbing graves and selling the corpses to medical students who need bodies to practice surgical procedures. And she wants Molly to help her procure the corpses. As Molly learns her aunt’s trade in the dead of night and explores the mansion by day, she is both horrified and deeply intrigued by the anatomy lessons held at the old church on her aunt’s property. Enigmatic Doctor LaSalle’s lessons are a heady mixture of knowledge and power and Molly has never wanted anything more than to join his male-only group of students. But the cost of inclusion is steep and with a murderer loose in the city, the pursuit of power and opportunity becomes a deadly dance.
The dead do not always keep their secrets. Sometimes the living must do it for them.
That’s how this book opened up and I was immediately drawn into this story.
If anyone is interested in medical history, especially near the turn of the 19th century, they would know that our society had great advancements at this time. Surgeries were advancing, apprenticeships were ending and medical schools were opening, more disorders and conditions were being studied and documented. And all because of the work of doctors and anatomists who were able to dissect human cadavers in school before having to operate on live bodies.
Except, cadavers are hard to come by, so they had to be stolen or purchased. Which led to an increase in grave robbers and a black market for cadavers – which leads us into this story!
Molly is an orphan: her mother and father both having died from consumption (tuberculosis) and left in the care of the church. Her best friend Kitty had been murdered, her vestigial tail cut off from her body. Molly doesn’t know who killed Kitty or why, but she’s going to find out. That is, until someone claiming to be her aunt takes her away from the orphanage and she’s sent off to live with her.
Molly’s aunt, Ava, is The Corpse Queen. Building her wealth from selling corpses to medical schools and doctors in training and she wants Molly to help. Meanwhile, Molly hasn’t given up her search for her friends killer and realizes that the killer dubbed The Knifeman is killing girls with anomalies, like Kitty. As she works for her aunt, Molly simultaneously tries to find out who her friends murderer was and things get complicated.
For one, loved the take on this! Often times with grave robbers, they’re depicted as dirty thieves (which they kind of are) doing a one off job. In this book, they’re shown as wealthy, with empires built beneath them. And we get to see the behind the scenes on these operating theatres and what these lectures might have looked like. Honestly, I find this stuff very fascinating and it was so cool to have the book be centered around this.
Looking at the plot, the murder mystery behind it was kind of lackluster. It was kind of obvious who the killer was and what was going on though I held out hope there was going to be a big twist at the end. Besides that, I loved the introduction to 1850’s Philadelphia and the expectations surrounding women at that time. Which brings us to the female empowerment portion!
While Molly is only seventeen, we get to meet different girls in different stations, like Ursula, a wealthy socialite who spends her time “helping” the poor and hosting parties. And we also see Ginny, a prostitute and dress-making apprentice, who lives with nine other women (and one man) who also work at the brothel. The different class situations are present and we get some good discussions and talking points from this book! Especially centered around what is expected of women, their self worth, and other ideas like that.
Molly herself wants to become a doctor and is looked down upon for entertaining the idea. While doctors were mostly men, there were female doctors at this time, though it was quite rare. Women were expected to keep the house and take care of children, not to care for patients and perform surgeries. Molly wants to go against that expectation, like Ava did, and do her own thing. She wants to help people and give back to the community. Though she gets a lot of hate for it, Molly doesn’t care. She fights for her right to be in classes and to learn with the others, which I loved seeing! We have a lot of female empowerment moments in this book.
With all this rambling, it’s clear that I like the book. I love the historical timeline, the interactions and friends Molly has, and the twists and turns. While the murder mystery aspect wasn’t great, the other twists in this book were! The subplots were very well developed, though the hints of Molly’s romance seemed tossed in which I didn’t like. The romances felt like an afterthought and I feel like they should just be taken out in general. It doesn’t really add much to the story and I think it would be cool if it was without it. I was more interested in the other subplots than the overlying murder mystery plot going on too. And it felt like the author was too, because she definitely kicked it aside several times throughout the book and it wasn’t nearly as developed or as interesting as the other subplots.
Overall, I liked the book, but the mystery element and the random romances could have been better. Maybe I’m getting better at spotting the hints ahead of time, but this one just like it was in your face obvious. Either way, if you like historical fiction, mysteries, or strong female leads, then you’re going to like this book!
Looking for more historical fiction thrillers? Check out these books! (spoiler free reviews linked below)
The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith
Small Favors by Erin A. Craig
Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny Elder Moke
Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy