Review: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

Title This Dark Endeavour
Author Kenneth Oppel
Published August 23rd, 2011 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Pages 298 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Historical Fiction, Gothic, Horror, Fantasy, Re-Telling
Part of a Series? Yes (Book 1 in The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series)
Source & Format Purchased from Chapters, Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

Synopsis

Sixteen-year-old Victor Frankenstein leads a charmed life. He and his twin brother, Konrad, and their beautiful cousin Elizabeth take lessons at home and spend their spare time fencing and horseback riding. Along with their friend, Henry, they have explored all the hidden passageways and secret rooms of the palatial Frankenstein chateau. Except one.

The Dark Library contains ancient tomes written in strange languages and filled with forbidden knowledge. Their father makes them promise never to visit the library, but when Konrad becomes deathly ill, Victor knows he must find the book that contains the recipe for the legendary Elixir of Life. But his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science, and love – and how much he is willing to sacrifice.

“Seeing my brother so ill sparked in me feelings of such intensity that I was nearly overwhelmed. What if he didn’t recover? What if I were to lose him? Looking at him was like looking upon myself, seeing my own body racked with fever and pain.
And, even more strange, I felt anger. How could Konrad have allowed this to happen? How could someone so healthy, so smart and sensible, become so ill?
I was ashamed for having such thoughts.
And I was ashamed at how powerless I was to help him.”

Sixteen-year-old twin brothers, Victor and Konrad Frankenstein and their distant cousin, Elizabeth Lavenza, have been inseparable ever since the tender age of seven. Whether they were exploring the hidden depths and secret passages of Chateau Frankenstein or attending lessons together, this indivisible threesome alongside their close friend and amateur playwright, Henry Clerval, have spent an idyllic adolescence engaged in pursuits like playacting, fencing and horseback riding. All that comes to an abrupt end, however, when a mysterious illness threatens to shatter the familiar peace and tranquility of the Frankenstein home forever. When Konrad falls gravely ill with an unknown affliction and medical experts are at a loss as to how to treat him, Victor and Elizabeth will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of the one person they love most of all. Having previously discovered the Biblioteka Obscura, a Dark Library filled with ancient tomes detailing the lost and forgotten art of alchemy hidden deep within the bowels of the Frankenstein manor, Victor returns to the forbidden room to seek a cure for Konrad despite his father’s warnings to the contrary. Convinced that the answers to his brother’s salvation lie within these forbidden texts, Victor is drawn ever deeper into the dark and dangerous world of alchemy as he becomes enthralled with the notions of power and prestige it promises to provide. After successfully locating a recipe for the Elixir of Life, Victor and Elizabeth enlist the help of controversial local figure, Doctor Paracelsus, and will embark on a quest that will test their fortitude, their loyalty, and most importantly of all, their love for the person for whom they will risk it all.

“I’ve got a great plan to gather the ingredients for the Elixir of Life, and once we’re done, you’ll be able to drink it.”
He shifted in his sleep, turned his head away, as though doubting me.
“I promise,” I said, kissing him on the forehead. “If no one else can make you better, I will.”

I have a small confession to make: I have never read Mary Shelley’s beloved Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein. I know, I know – I’m a disgrace to English Majors everywhere. Please, put down your rotten tomatoes. That isn’t to say I’m not interested in doing so, only that I’ve never found the opportunity. Marketed as a prequel to Shelley’s original 1818 publication, Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour purports to document the life of scientist, Victor Frankenstein, whilst he was still a teenager well before the eventual creation of his now-infamous ‘monster’. So, given the alleged connection between the two tales and desperately in need of an appropriate novel to read during the month of October, you might imagine why I was so excited to discover a copy of this novel tucked away amongst the towering stacks on my to-be-read bookshelf. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel I would have been better served in seeking a copy of the original tale on which this novel was based, as This Dark Endeavour was a generic story that seemed to bear little, if any, relevance to the original story and was a continuation of Shelley’s narrative in name only. A bitter disappointment that left me feeling little apart from frustration and disappointment, Oppel’s work was more akin to a love story masquerading as a Gothic thriller. While this novel undeniably had promise and I enjoyed the author’s examination, however superficial, of Victor’s slow descent into madness and obsession, with a series of insufferable characters and an even more unbearable love triangle, This Dark Endeavour was a largely forgettable novel that did little to set itself apart from the multitude of other predictable, formulaic books in the young adult paranormal genre.

“Victor, what do you see in your future?”

I thought for a moment, and then said, “When I see the stars, I think of the planets that must orbit them, and I would like to travel among them. And if we could do so, would we not be gods?”
“A modest goal, then,” said my twin. “Victor just wants to be a god.”

This Dark Endeavour has the regrettable distinction of having some of the most formulaic, facile, unlikeable characters I’ve had the displeasure of encountering in recent memory. Each character is reduced to one or two defining characteristics, and they neither deviate nor develop from there. Elizabeth is known for her bad temper, Victor for his arrogance and impulsivity, and Konrad for his apparent kindness and generosity, although any definitive evidence of the latter is its own issue in and of itself. It is the turbulent, often competitive relationship between twin brothers Victor and Konrad that provides the central conflict for the novel. Regrettably, both characters were so unlikeable as to render me utterly ambivalent as to the development of this dynamic. Resentment, insecurity and hurt feelings simmer below the surface as Victor worries he will never be able to measure up to his twin, who he perceives to be the more beloved of the two. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths in order to gain Konrad’s, Elizabeth’s, and his parents’ attention and admiration, Victor makes a series of rash, impetuous decisions that inevitably put both himself and those around him in great danger. The reader will soon recognize this selfish disregard for the feelings and well-being of others as Victor’s trademark. A boy who does not think of a person, place, or thing without first considering how it will directly benefit and/or affect him, even Victor’s ‘heroic’ attempts to save his brother’s life are little more than a means of achieving the recognition and renown he has always felt owed to him. While rationally I understood that Oppel was likely using Victor’s increasingly volatile behaviour as a method to allude to the man he would eventually become, this did little to increase my interest in his character. It makes it no less painful to be trapped inside the head of a character you actively despise simply because you can understand their motivations. In truth, Konrad is little better. Despite being subjected to an almost constant listing of Konrad’s ‘superior’ qualities over the course of the novel, Konrad exhibits all the charm and personality of a cardboard box and his dismissive, condescending attitude toward Elizabeth proved more than I could bear.

“This I knew: There would be no victory in winning Elizabeth through alchemical tricks.
I was not so lovable as Konrad, no. I would never have his charm or grace or patience or effortless skill at things. But I had the same fine body, and what mine contained had more grit and determination and passion.
Were these not things worth loving?
I’d felt her wolf’s heat that night in the Strumwald. She’d been mine then, and I would make her mine again.
On my own, and for good.”

Houston, we have a love triangle. While I have absolutely no doubt that the love triangle holds a valid place in literature and can be used to great effect given the proper context and when placed in the hands of the right author, as was the case in Cynthia Hand’s Unearthly trilogy, Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavour is not one such instance. I love romance just as much, if not more, than the next reader, but rarely has a romantic subplot felt more contrived and ill-placed than in this particular story. Worst of all, I could find no real basis for either Konrad or Victor’s feelings for Elizabeth. Neither seemed interested in Elizabeth as an individual. Instead, they are motivated by their own selfish desires that have little, if anything, to do with the girl in question. We’re told they’re both desperately in love with her, and yet repeatedly given evidence to the contrary. Konrad’s supposed sensitivity and gallantry regarding Elizabeth’s ‘delicate’ sensibilities was nothing more than misogyny in disguise. While one might make the argument that Konrad’s attitudes are a direct result of the time period in which this novel is set, there is very little basis for this assertion as Kenneth Oppel goes out of his way to emphasize how progressive and liberal-minded the inhabitants of Chateau Frankenstein are. As loathe as I am to admit it given my antipathy toward Victor, it was clear that the two had more in common despite Elizabeth’s protestations to the contrary. The timing of Victor’s sudden revelation about the ‘truth’ of his feelings is extremely suspect, however. Victor only believes himself to be in love with Elizabeth after discovering the truth about Konrad and Elizabeth’s secret trysts. Much like everything else in Victor’s life, Victor’s feelings for Elizabeth are another in a long line of ‘challenges’ he imposes on himself meant to further his own glory and best his brother. Victor repeatedly refers to gaining Elizabeth’s affections in terms of competition and possession (‘Winning’, ‘Victory’, ‘Have’, ‘Mine’) Her preference is a mere possession to be won, a trifle with which Victor can lord over Konrad’s head, and the levels to which he will stoop in order to ‘win’ her are disreputable at best. Moreover, Kenneth Oppel uses the same hackneyed analogy to describe Elizabeth as a ‘wild wolf’ whose untamed spirit speaks to Victor on an elemental level more times than I could count. I found the notion that we should root for either of these characters to secure Elizabeth’s affections patently ridiculous. She would have been better off alone.

“I was pulling with all my might, trying to wrench my hand free. “It’s got me!” I roared. “It’s got my hand!”
What’s got your hand?” shouted Konrad from below.
In my hysteria all I could think was, If it has a hand, it has a head, and if it has a mouth, it has teeth.

Despite the numerous issues I encountered while reading This Dark Endeavour, there were a handful of things I enjoyed about the text. Most notable of these were the sections detailing Victor and Elizabeth’s quest to procure the ingredients necessary to create the Elixir of Life and the creation of the potion itself. These passages were exciting, well-paced and helped to recapture my attention and alleviate the boredom I suffered after having to slog through numerous pages dedicated to the intolerable love triangle. I also liked Oppel’s subtle allusions to Victor’s growing desperation for fame, appreciation, power and prestige, how this manifested itself in his burgeoning interest in alchemy and his ruminations regarding its efficacy and the related ethical issues. While I was left wishing that this had been the primary focus of the novel as opposed to the progressively prevalent love story, I did appreciate this glimpse into Victor’s psyche. Oppel’s prose is servicable, if a little rudimentary. The characters’ dialogue was littered with historical anachronisms (i.e. “How’s he doing?” as opposed to “How does he fare?”, etc), which I found frustrating, but given the other more pressing problems I had with this novel this seemed of little importance in comparison. Prospective readers should be warned that this novel might not be the right choice for those who are squamish or have a sensitive stomach – Limbs are lost and much blood is spilled along the way. There was also an instance of animal cruelty in which the death and dismemberment of an animal is described in explicit detail, something which I found particularly distasteful and unnecessary.

“From the stained-glass windows shafts of coloured light angled through the stillness of the church. My thoughts drifted.
Wine to blood. Lead to gold. Medicine dripped into my brother’s veins. The transmutation of matter.
Was it magic or science? Fantasy or truth?”

While this novel might appeal to those more familiar with the source material on which it’s based or those less well-versed with the paranormal genre and therefore unacquainted with the typical formula and the clichés with which the genre tends to be riddled, This Dark Endeavour was simply not the right novel for me. With a series of unlikeable characters who display little to no development and an exasperating love triangle that monopolized much of the story, the only thing this story succeeded in was testing my patience. Notwithstanding the numerous issues I touched upon in my review, I appreciated the brief glimpse we were given into Victor’s descent into madness and obsession and the author’s ambition in attempting to re-imagine a well-known and much-beloved story. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but feel this was a continuation of Mary Shelley’s original tale in name only. Had the names been changed and the marketing been different, I would never have known this was meant as a prequel to Frankenstein as it reads like the innumerable number of generic paranormal romances I’ve encountered before.

Overall Rating

Around The Web

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Laura @ Scribbles & Wanderlust wrote “The plot was good, the characters well-rounded, the action and suspense well-placed and paced. However, I believe all of the inner turmoil, the progression from mere brotherly competition to mad jealousy, could have done better in an adult fiction novel, or a much larger YA novel.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Thea @ The Book Smugglers wrote “There is so much to This Dark Endeavour, and I loved every second of this novel. For the fan of Mary Shelley, for the student that might struggle to find a way to connect with the older iteration of Victor Frankenstein, for the bright-eyed reader that wants to try something new, dark and delectable, This Dark Endeavour awaits.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Emily @ Emily’s Reading Room wrote “Billed as a prequel to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, This Dark Endeavour is a deliciously gothic tale that adds a new dimension to Victor Frankenstein that a new generation of readers will devour.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

One response to “Review: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel”

  1. Lovely, very thoughtful review as usual, Jen! I was just thinking about finding a Halloween read and this could have easily been a contestant, what with the cool Frankenstein theme. Like you, I haven’t read Shelley’s original story. That may hinder my enjoyment of this too, alongside the not-so-likeable characters and the unimpressive love triangle. So I guess I probably won’t be picking this one up. But I’m glad you still found a few aspects you could enjoy! 🙂
    Hazel @ Stay Bookish recently posted…Little Talks: Are Positive Reviewers Unreliable?My Profile

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