Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review: This Dark Endeavour

I love the idea of books that explore the beginnings of major literary characters (who just so happen to be in the public domain), books that imagine what their formative years were like, and how they became the people they were.

I think the best-known example of this is Gregory Maguire's Wicked - and I'm pretty sure I'm one of a handful of people who did not like this book and had no interest in reading anything else in this series or anything else he wrote.

Thankfully, Maguire isn't the only writer to imagine literary characters as youngsters and when I found the young adult novel This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel, I was intrigued.

This is my first time reading Kenneth Oppel, despite the massive success of his Silverwing series (which I will now have to check out). One caveat: I haven't read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I know the lore and I've seen the Branagh/De Niro movie (given, that was about 20 years ago) but I couldn't make it through the book; Shelley's writing made me want to stab pokers in my eyes.

In Oppel's imagining, 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein has a twin brother, Konrad, who falls deathly ill. When the medicine at the time fails to provide a cure, Victor becomes determined to make the Elixir of Life, based on alchemical recipes he discovers in the Dark Library, a hidden room in his family's chateau. Despite his father warning him to stay away from alchemy and the library, Victor perseveres, determined to save his brother. Victor is assisted by his adopted cousin Elizabeth, who he and Konrad both love, and their close friend Henry Clerval. (Thanks to Wikipedia, I was able to learn that these are in fact characters mentioned in Shelley's novel, when she described Victor's childhood and home life, though there is no mention of a twin brother.)

Being YA, there is the standard emphasis on plot and moving the story along, but Oppel does delve into Victor's mind and we start to see the beginnings of the man who will eventually create (monstrous, deadly, hideous) life. Victor feels he is always in Konrad's shadow but finally feels smart and useful once he discovers his talent at alchemy and realizes he could save his brother's life. It's also an excellent adventure tale, as the teens hunt for the obscure ingredients for the elixir, under the guidance of a handicapped alchemist with a shady past.

The book gives us the tale of Victor trying to save Konrad but also the tale of Victor coming of age and beginning to realize the kind of man he wants to become. And the ending is fantastic; it leaves it open for Victor to marry Elizabeth (which readers of Frankenstein will know happens) but also leaves the reader with the knowledge of what is behind Victor's ultimate goal of wanting to create life.

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