Kenneth Oppel,
This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
(Simon & Schuster, 2011)

For the same reason it was hard for some of us to watch Star Wars episodes 1-3, it's a little hard to read about young Victor Frankenstein when you already know what happens to him. (Even if you haven't read Frankenstein, you are probably aware that things don't end up exactly peachy.) But Kenneth Oppel, author of the fabulous and under-appreciated Airborn, can write circles around most young adult authors, and This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein succeeds on many levels.

Forbidden alchemy, hidden libraries and teenage angst come together in a darkly gothic and enjoyably chilling read.

In Oppel's spin on Victor's teenage years, Victor has a twin brother Konrad who is his closest friend as well as his direct competitor in everything -- including the affections of their adoptive sister Elizabeth. Nonetheless, when Konrad falls deathly ill, Victor is desperate to save him. Cue the hidden library they stumbled upon earlier, complete with trap door and ancient alchemical texts. Victor, always the more ambitious and obsessive of the twins, seizes the chance to save his brother and prove himself, whatever it takes.

The ensuing adventure, vividly narrated by Victor himself, is a headlong plunge into underground caverns, a mysterious alchemist's lair and the seduction of knowledge and power. Oppel does a terrific job with both the cinematic action and the characters, especially Victor. He's impetuous, jealous, passionate -- not all that likable, but nonetheless sympathetic and a far cry from the usual blandly plucky teen protagonist. Oppel's Victor has all the seeds of Shelley's flawed protagonist, and Elizabeth is actually a much more fiery and interesting character here than she is in Frankenstein. The complex yet understated relationships among Konrad, Victor and Elizabeth are handled adroitly and give the book an emotional backbone.

This Dark Endeavor is an action-packed and intelligent (if not always comfortable) read, with one caveat: I'm not sure how enjoyable it would be to someone who wasn't familiar with Frankenstein. Part of the fun is in seeing how Oppel tweaks elements of the classic and sets the stage for later events. And I suspect that the ending, which works if you've read Frankenstein, would seem very abrupt if you hadn't. At the same time, age-wise the book seems to be targeted at teens who wouldn't necessarily have read the classic yet.

Oh well. This Dark Endeavor is a fine book and a breath of fresh air in the crowded and largely mediocre young-adult fantasy genre.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

17 September 2011

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