This Dark Endeavour, by Kenneth Oppel [The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein #1]

Title: This Dark Endeavour
(The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein #2)
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication date: 7th June 2011
Rating: 

large-high-res-PB1-666x1024The first thing that drew me to This Dark Endeavour was the cover. I’m down with seeing pretty girl on YA covers—totally—but sometimes it nice to see boys. And well, the model on the cover is fairly delicious, in all his gothic-y goodness. Which is to be expected, since This Dark Endeavour is essentially the prequel to Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein. Which, I have to admit to not having read. (You’ll find I’ve not really read anything dating back before the late 80s, unless you count assigned texts at school, such as the usual Of Mice and Men etc. [Which, being perfectly honest, is another I have no idea as to when it was published.] Therefore, I’ve not read anything in the same period as Shelley, or anything Gothic whatsoever.)

Regardless, I adored this book.

Given that it’s a prequel to a book written by someone Oppel could not have known, there were certain boundaries imposed as to what he could and could not do—to a point. He imaginatively crafted a believable history and backstory for the eventual Dr Frankenstein, giving him a different sense of live and separation from his older incarnation, but also bringing the whole focus of the story to this new, young Victor in the past. Essentially, Frankenstein and his monster are, for now, forgotten.

Victor and his twin brother Konrad, and their lives at Chateau Frankenstein form the centre point of the story. Add in a beautiful, very distant cousin and their collective best friend Henry, and already the idea of reanimated monsters is far from mind.

When Konrad falls ill and despite the family’s efforts, there seems to be nothing to cure him. Weak and with a fever refusing to break, it does not look good. But mere days before, whilst exploring the chateau’s many rooms, they find a secret. Inside the walls of the library and down into the dark, they discover the dark library of their ancestor Wilhelm Frankenstein. Their ancestor was known to be into alchemy and other dark things—until he simply vanished one day, leaving the chateau he’d built himself and his family with it.

Inside this library, Victor finds something that he is certain can cure his brother. It a recipe, but not for just any medicine—this is for the elixir of life. If nothing else will heal his brother, surely this can? Of course, this means setting out to not only find someone who can translate the ancient, damaged tome, but also finding the ingredients and exhibiting the skill and courage to produce the elixir itself. Something granting immortal life will not be as easy as poaching an egg, that’s for sure. Victor will have his work cut out.

The best thing about this book is that it’s a gothic horror YA novel that really does invest itself in the supernatural; the alchemical and the mystical. There were elements that did disappoint, but I expected them from the start—had Oppel done something different and ironic to close the book, I would have been impressed enough to cough up the five stars I thought this book might get when I was only partway through. Yet in the end, the sad predictability that also felt like some kind of higher moral lesson that denounced the very supernatural the book itself appeared to be built around made it so the end tasted bitter and expected. I wanted to be surprised, to have some clever quirk at the end that really, really made this into a fantastical novel.

However, I still loved this book. It was effortlessly creepy, tense and full of suspense and danger. Parts of the book do fall into place a little too easily, with the action barely moving from the safe vicinity of the Frankenstein’s native stomping ground, but the book is fun enough and written in a fashion rich and colourful enough so that I just let all these coincidences slide.

Victor was an energetic, imperfect protagonist and I took to him immediately. This book would not have worked with Konrad in the lead. Victor might be the younger twin, the less popular twin, but he is by far the most interesting to read about. At Victor’s heart lurks a deep sense of jealously over how easily life falls into place for Konrad—an envy he doesn’t truly realise until they both develop feelings for the same person. This isn’t a love triangle (and so damn what if it is, huh? What is this thing against love triangles? Which, I might add, technically aren’t love triangles at all if we’re using the classical Greek model for a love triangle, which requires each point of the triangle to be directing their love in a different direction. Anything else, two people liking the same person; that’s a chevron, people! A point! An arrow! /rant) and it certainly doesn’t dominate the plot or the emotions of those involved. The plot remains entirely focussed on saving Konrad.

4-star copyThe supporting cast is fairly generic: we have Elizabeth, the beautiful cousin, who is also pluckier than given credit for, certainly not a wilting damsel; and Henry, the timid son of a merchant who is reliable, but frightens easily. Still, they are enjoyable to be around and coupled with the enigmatic Victor, the cast is strong and definitely compatible with one another and the story at hand. It is woven perfectly and demonstrates excellent pacing. All in all, it was a very enjoyable story; addictive and compelling.

I just wish the end had been a clever thing that felt ironic and witty. But I had to settle for predictable. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed This Dark Endeavour and certainly enjoyed the notion of reading about the teenage lives of classic literary characters.

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