This Dark Endeavor is the first in a YA series of Frankenstein prequel books by Kenneth Oppel. To be honest, when I first heard of the book, I was a bit skeptical of the concept, unsure of what a prequel would offer that wouldn’t either be simply Frankenstein retold (“see the first time Victor creates life and how it goes bad!”) or wouldn’t trivialize Frankenstein’s characters and themes (“see young Victor try to resuscitate a beetle!”) But when I learned Oppel was the author, I was more than a little interested, as his Darkwing was one of my best reads of last year. And while not as good as Darkwing, This Dark Endeavor is well worth the read.
The storyline details, with one large exception, mesh well with the Frankenstein background. Victor lives in Geneva with his father and mother, his cousin Elizabeth, and his two brothers Ernest and William. Spending a lot of time in the Frankenstein household is Victor’s best friend, Henry Clerval. Victor has a curious mind and a passionate fire to go along with it, and when he discovers ancient alchemical texts his mind is opened to possibilities. So far so good in terms of matching what Mary Shelley tells us about his younger years. What Oppel adds to the mix is Victor’s twin brother Konrad, born two minutes earlier than Victor and always just a little bit better at everything — better in his studies, better at fencing, a better rider, a natural leader. And worst of all, it eventually turns out, better at getting the girl — in this case, Elizabeth. But early on the three and Henry are a wonderfully tight-knit group, though the seeds of Victor’s jealousy are always subtly present.
When the three family members discover a secret library in their home filled with alchemical tomes, little do they know the path it will send them down. For soon afterward Konrad takes ill and when the doctors can seemingly do nothing, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry take it upon themselves to seek the Elixir of Life written about in one of the library’s books. They are aided by a local man, Polidori, who had years ago seemingly cured someone via alchemy but had also apparently killed someone by the same means. Polidori was barely saved from being executed as a witch and so went underground (he also suffered an accident that left him wheelchair-bound). The Elixir needs three arcane ingredients and soon the trio is off adventuring in search of each, racing against time to save Konrad. Motivations become muddled, however, once Victor discovers Konrad is in love with Elizabeth.
The plot moves along quickly at the start, becomes a bit formulaic though still enjoyable during the “quest” part, then picks up quite a bit with a suitable increase in urgency and tension in the last 60 pages. One really feels Victor’s obsession growing and for those who know Frankenstein, it’s easy to see that older Victor growing out of this younger one. There are some unexpected twists and turns and some clever little inside references (Polidori’s name, for one). And Oppel does a nice job of creating a very readable version of that lush romantic/gothic language.
Even better than the surface plot, though, is the underlying character tension. The love triangle is a bit of a cliché, especially in YA. But while the triangle itself is a bit thin, what really works here is Victor’s self-examination of his jealousy rather than the jealousy itself, the way in which his jealousy calls into question his motivations and finally, how it creates tension in the reader’s mind as to just what Victor will do at the end. As they near their goal, Victor becomes a more complex character, deepening the story. It helps as well that he is not painted as a boy genius, but has some serious flaws, including arrogance and pettiness.
The other characters aren’t nearly as interesting, unfortunately. Konrad is a bit pallid; Henry is barely on stage and offers mostly comic relief. Elizabeth is more strongly drawn than either of those two, but doesn’t really stand out much beyond the standard “spirited young woman” mode. But that’s OK as this is really Victor’s story and his voice that carries us through. That isn’t to say that this wouldn’t have been a better book if the other characters had been more three-dimensional or that I’m not hoping they get fleshed out in the sequel; it’s just that in this first book we’re mostly concerned with the always driven and sometimes dark character of Victor and that’s mostly enough.
Beyond the major plotline, there are nice little tangents into plot points or themes dealing with religion and science. Elizabeth is a practicing Catholic, which offers up some conflict with Victor, who takes on his father’s atheism. When one of the doctors called for Konrad turns out to be much more scientific than the first few, and in fact is on the cutting edge of science and medicine, one can see how Victor is torn between this new science and the grand claims of alchemy. And, similar to Shelley’s work, Oppel examines the duality of human nature — the animal and the civilized.
Though it has room for improvement, This Dark Endeavor is a strong opening to the series and one which sets Victor clearly on the path toward the man who would create the famed Creature of Mary Shelley’s vision. And sets the reader well on the path to wanting to pick up book two. Recommended.