Review: This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by Luke Daniels. Review copies from publisher.

The Plot: Victor Frankenstein, the teenage years. What made the boy into a man who was driven to create the monster?

The Good: Confession: I’ve never read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I’ve read the comics, watched the movies. That’s all you need, really, before reading This Dark Endeavor, but something tells me I would have gotten more out of the book had I been more familiar with Frankenstein. The “more,” though, is not anything about plot or character or writing; all those are independent of reading the original. Rather, I image that there were slight asides, references that I didn’t fully appreciate, but, didn’t miss because I didn’t know to miss them.

This Dark Endeavor delves into just what motivated young Frankenstein. Victor has a twin brother, Konrad, older by a few minutes, but those moments are enough to make Konrad the golden child, the one everyone loves, the one who gets everything easily: the better student, the better fencer, the one all the servants love. The one their cousin Elizabeth loves. Victor’s feelings towards his brother are conflicted. He loves Konrad, is devoted to him, but is also jealous of all Konrad has and all Konrad is. When Konrad falls ill, Victor resolves to be the one to save him. It’s as much about saving Konrad as proving himself worthy; proving that he, Victor, is just as good — if not better — than his brother.

Since Victor is only a teen, how can he save his brother? His wealthy father has hired the best doctors available, how can Victor compete with this?

Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth made a discovery in the Chateau Frankenstein: a secret room, both library and laboratory, created by a long ago ancestor who practiced alchemy. Their common-sense father forbids them to enter the secret room, but Victor becomes convinced that somewhere in there is the secret to saving Konrad.

Victor’s search drives the novel, and it’s a fast paced, exciting, exhilarating adventure. Victor has to do many things, from research in the library to translating old books, from the highest points to the deepest caves. Sacrifices are made, all to save Konrad. Elizabeth and a friend, Henry, participate in the search. Elizabeth is gutsy and brave; and, unfortunately for Victor, in love with Konrad. Henry is the poet of the group, and maybe it was Victor’s retelling but sometimes Henry seemed too aware of his role as the one who is excitable and emotional. Listening to this on audio made for a very exciting commute, with breathless adventure after breathless adventure.

The alchemy that Victor practices is more scientific than magical. For some things, it was if the alchemists Victor studied had just enough medical and scientific information to suspect the proper way to treat something. Seen through the modern reader’s eyes, Victor’s alchemy seems little different, if not slightly better, than the medicine practiced by the specialist doctors his father consults.

Victor doesn’t flatter himself. He shows his flaws, especially his jealousy and quick temper.

While it’s hard for me to say that Oppel captures the style of Shelley’s writing because I haven’t read the original, This Dark Endeavor, like Monstrumologist and the Octavian Nothing books, sounds like it was written in the time it was set yet remains accessible.

Over at Someday My Printz Will Come, Sarah looks at This Dark Endeavor through the lens of the Printz, pointing out strengths and flaws. At The Book Smugglers, Thea said it’s one of her favorite books this year.

Because Victor’s voice is compelling. Because his choices took me on a breathless adventure. Because This Dark Endeavor was both an extended game and a literary wonder. Because its made me want to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.


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