Such Wicked Intent is the follow-up to This Dark Endeavour and as such puts us two-thirds of the way through Kenneth Oppel’s YA trilogy detailing the early years of Victor Frankenstein. And as the book ends with a very well known scene from early in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, well, it’s clear we have just about fully plumbed those early years.
Which is too bad, because Oppel has, ahem, “brought to life” an intriguing Frankenstein character and story of his own. Before going much further, though, let me stop here for those who haven’t read the first book and say the quick take-away is that this is a series well worth picking up. Certainly for YA readers, but adults will also enjoy it, though it certainly has a YA feel and lacks a bit of the depth and subtlety of adult fiction. Those who haven’t read This Dark Endeavour and don’t want spoilers for it should stop reading now.
Oppel’s big twist on the original tale is the creation of a twin brother for Victor. Konrad is a few minutes older and a little bit better at just about everything, including getting the girl — in this case their cousin Elizabeth. In This Dark Endeavor, the three, along with their friend Henry Clerval, race against time to discover the Elixir of Life in time to prevent Konrad from dying of a mysterious illness. Victor will do anything to save his brother, despite his jealousy of him, but fails in the end. Such Wicked Intent picks up shortly afterward, with Victor having sworn off alchemy. Almost immediately, though, he’s dragged in another direction — the occult. Once again, it’s his love of his brother that drives him, as it turns out that Konrad is stuck in some sort of limbo status, haunting a version of the family home in another realm which Victor (and eventually Elizabeth and Henry) are able to visit thanks to a recently-discovered concoction of one of Victor’s magic-minded ancestors.
All is not well in that limbo world though. Something frightening is waking below, while (another? The same?) seemingly evil presence swirls outside the house eager to get in. Once more, Victor and his friends are in a race, this time to free Konrad from limbo and return him to the land of the living. And once more, Victor’s ambition is greater than his wisdom.
The plot of Such Wicked Intent is consistently suspenseful, with a driving sense of urgency nearly from the very beginning which only accelerates as we move further into the novel. The suspense is also multi-stranded. We have the attempt to free Konrad before he “moves on” from limbo, something we’re told by another limbo inhabitant can happen at any time; the growing wakefulness of whatever it is below the limbo house; a parallel plot in the real world involving the discovery and exploration of some caves below the Frankenstein house; and the growing tension amongst the four friends/family members.
Part of the tension is a continuation of the love triangle from the first book, as Victor must once more watch Elizabeth turn to Konrad (even a dead Konrad) over him, try as he does to win her over. The triangle actually becomes a quadrangle, however, as Henry decides to make his own play for Elizabeth’s affections. While some of this seems the requisite cliché of YA fiction, and some of it a bit repetitive from This Dark Endeavour, I found myself mostly fine with it for a few reasons. One is that it fits the gothic/romantic genre of the original. Another reason is that the triangle serves as a vehicle for characterization, as opposed to simply being a plot device. It wonderfully complicates the characters’ motivations and actions.
The rest of the tension grows out of disagreements over whether or not to go forward with trying to resurrect Konrad, the means of doing so, what to do about what lies below the limbo house and, finally, the use and effect of the power the limbo realm can convey to those who visit — power that does not come without cost.
Victor, as in book one, remains a deeply flawed, often unlikable, and wholly complex character. If This Dark Endeavour had a flaw, it was in the thinness of its secondary characters. Such Wicked Intent improves in this area somewhat — Henry comes more into his own, as does Elizabeth, but I would say there’s still room to do more with them. Being overshadowed by Victor makes sense in terms of the story and Victor’s outsized personality, but while not as pallid as they were in This Dark Endeavour, his two companions still shine a bit too weakly to hold a lot of interest. Luckily, Victor is always on stage, usually glowing hotly.
Such Wicked Intent zips along; it’s expertly paced and plotted and I’d be surprised if anyone, young or old, puts it down more than once. The narrative suspense and sense of urgency sweeps you along, even as you want to avert your eyes at times, feeling you’re watching an impending train wreck speeding down the tracks. All that speeding you through, though, doesn’t mean Oppel doesn’t stop to examine some big issues. There are a lot of moral quandaries, ethical questions, and religious issues explored throughout, adding a nice bit of depth to a fast-moving plot.
For those familiar with the original Frankenstein, the winks and nods to that novel add a richness to the story, especially in the latter third as events start to match up more directly with what happens in Shelley’s classic work. Equally enjoyable are the little bits of Romanticism floating through, such as bits of famous poems.
As mentioned at the top, the end of Such Wicked Intent overlaps with the beginning of Shelley’s Frankenstein, so Oppel doesn’t leave himself much more room. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he does with what little time Young Victor has left before he becomes the Victor we all know.