This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: May 2012
Genre: young adult, gothic, fantasy, sci-fi
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.
Victor’s twin Konrad, “the better” of the two, suddenly falls ill and no cure is available. Fearing for his brother’s life and determined to prove himself, Victor turns to the alchemy books he discovers in the Dark Library. With the help of his cousin Elizabeth and dear friend Henry, they concoct a potion said to restore life. But as the quest for the Elixir of Life proves more and more dangerous, Victor begins to discover a side of himself much darker than he ever thought possible, as nature, science, religion, and love pull his motivations apart.
I’m astonished, somewhat proud, and slightly embarrassed to say I’ve gone through my entire academic career not having reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’m not sure how it happened, and I’m surprised it was never assigned in my undergraduate Victorian lit and Gothic lit courses. It turned into a game, seeing how long I could go in my academic career — potentially my life — without reading this classic, just out of pure sport. That’s not to say I have no idea what happens in Frankenstein. I can easily give a full synopsis of the book and characters and big impact moments and themes, and that’s simply because I listened to conversations. I’ve never seen a TV show on it, I’ve never seen the movies, I haven’t even seen the play. But with this thesis, I must end this game and read the book.
That being said, my enjoyment for Oppel’s prequel to Frankenstein might have been diminished simply because I have not read the classic first. I spotted all of the historical references to the birth of the story (Wollstonekraft Alley is based on Mary’s mother’s maiden name, Wollstonecraft; Polidori was named after the physician friend of Shelley and Byron’s who wrote Vampyre the same night Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein), all the references back to Frankenstein (from my meager listening skills), and it’s easy to see the madness begin in Victor Frankenstein. Armed with all of this information, though, I still did not fully appreciate it.
The plot was good, the characters well-rounded, the action and suspense well-placed and paced. However, I believe all of the inner turmoil, the progression from mere brotherly competition to mad jealousy, could have done better in an adult fiction novel, or a much larger YA novel. This is book one of a series, but I still believe Oppel could have fleshed out more of Victor. He’s such a Byronic hero — I understand his selfishness and his inner conflict, he’s easy to love and easy to hate — but it was all too rushed and sudden. He needs to develop slowly, otherwise the sudden switch in personality can be jarring for the reader and almost cheesy.