This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel
Review by Stuart E Wise
Fantasy Book Review Book of the Month, October 2012
The purest intentions can stir up the darkest obsessions.
In this prequel to Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, Frankenstein, 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins a dark journey that will change his life forever. Victor’s twin, Konrad, has fallen ill, and no doctor is able to cure him. Unwilling to give up on his brother, Victor enlists his beautiful cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry on a treacherous search for the ingredients to create the forbidden Elixir of Life. Impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn.
Victor knows he must not fail. But his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science, and love – and how much he is willing to sacrifice.
Published in August 2011, the Dark Endeavour is a YA book by award winning Canadian author, Kenneth Oppel. His previous works include the Silverwing trilogy, which has sold over a million copies around the world, and Airborn, winner of the 2004 Governor General’s Award for children’s literature, and the Michael L. Printz Honor Book award from the American Library Association.
In addition to those books, in 2011, Half Brother won both the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children Award, as well as their Young Adult Book Award – the first time in the awards’ history the same title has won both honours.
I must admit to not having read any of Kenneth Oppel’s other work, but having briefly researched him, he appears to be well thought of within the industry. His books have received a number of awards, as well as good reviews from an eclectic mix of publications internationally. But writing a story containing your own characters is a very different proposition to writing a prequel to one of the greatest gothic novels ever written, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, I love an author who is not frightened to take on a challenge, so before I even started to read the book, I gave kudos to Kenneth Oppel for having the guts to even attempt this story.
The book is written in the first person, from the point of view of the young Victor Frankenstein. At the start of the book we have the ‘hero’ engaging in all sorts of normal teenage pursuits with his twin brother Konrad, his cousin, Elizabeth Lavenza and his best friend, Henry Clerval. Fans of the original work by Shelley will immediately notice the discrepancy – Konrad is a new character, but he is integral to the plot and as the book develops it is clear to see how Oppel uses the tangled relationships between Konrad, Victor and Elizabeth to develop Victor’s personality.
An accidental discovery leads the teenagers into a hidden library within Chateau Frankenstein, containing books in ancient languages as well as strange implements and equipment. ‘Books usually held little interest for me, but these had a dark lustre and I wanted to run my fingers over their ancient pages, gaze upon their strange contents.’ Shortly after this discovery Konrad falls ill with a mysterious malady and Victor resolves to use the forbidden knowledge of alchemy to save him by crafting an Elixir of Life.
The rest of the book is taken up with the quest to find the ingredients for the cure. Along the way, the reader is exposed to Victor’s thought processes and a number of moral dilemmas about magic, medicine, religion, relationships and other core values. However it is never simple with Victor, his motivation for finding the cure is more about what it will do for him and his own self-esteem, than saving his brother’s life. The decisions that he makes along the way begin to shape the framework for the dark path that he walks in later life.
Oppel has clearly done his homework, there are a number of nods to Shelley, for example the renegade alchemist, Julius Polidori, lives in Woollstonekraft Alley (Woolstonecraft was the surname of Shelley’s mother) and he also includes direct references to the original, ‘I shall be with you on your wedding night’ which never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I read the original version of the story and had the same effect when used by Oppel.
My assessment of this book is that it is excellent, well written and true to the original. Oppel has captured Victor’s voice in such a way that his journey into the darkness of the original book is both believable and inevitable because of his character and the choices that he makes.
I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who has read and enjoyed the original.
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