This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel is a "prequel" to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It is going to be impossible for me to discuss the book independent of its source material, particularly as I just finished rereading and analyzing Frankenstein in preparation for teaching it this fall. It is certainly a testament to Oppel's work that I thoroughly enjoyed it right on the heels of the original novel.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
In this prequel to Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, Frankenstein,
16-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins a dark journey that will change
his life forever. Victor’s twin, Konrad, has fallen ill, and no doctor
is able to cure him. Unwilling to give up on his brother, Victor enlists
his beautiful cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry on a treacherous
search for the ingredients to create the forbidden Elixir of Life.
Impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten
their quest at every turn. Victor knows he must not fail. 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.
This Dark Endeavour delves into the idea of dual natures, one's tame side and one's wild side. Konrad is an addition to the story, a source of Oppel's own imagination, but he provides a contrast to Victor. The idea being identical twins are two halves of one whole. Victor is the younger brother, and feels continuously inferior to his twin who learns faster, is better at sports, and has won the affection of Elizabeth. He loves his brother though and will go to any lengths for him. Oppel made no attempt to make Victor likable. He is conniving, jealous, selfish, and reckless. Yet there is something about him that makes him sympathetic. Maybe it is his love for his brother and his relationship to Elizabeth and Henry. They keep him human.
The whole idea of the dual nature is also evident in Elizabeth. She is pious, devout, and practical. But she has a wild impetuous side too. And yes, this leads her to have conflicting feelings for the two brothers. She is attracted to Konrad's steady devotion, yet Victor's wildness also draws her, though she is more wary of this. As she says at one point, "There is a passion in you that scares me." So this book has a love triangle. Sort of. I'm usually opposed to love triangles, but this one didn't bother me so much. I don't know if it was the male point of view or just how Oppel presented it. I do like how Oppel added color to Elizabeth. Victor is recognizable from the original, Elizabeth is not. I don't consider this to be a bad thing.
I enjoyed the banter and dialogue between the four friends and how it developed their characters so well, such as in this conversation about their futures. This is only one little slice of a greater whole that set up their characters perfectly for the story that lay ahead:
I thought 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."
Laughing, I elbowed him in the ribs. "I'm imbued with high hopes and lofty ambitions. And if I can't travel between planets-"
"Always good to have a back-up plan," Henry interjected.
"-then I will create something, some great work that will be useful and marvelous to all humanity."
"Yes, perhaps,"I said, thinking more seriously now. "An engine that will transform the world-or a new source of energy. It seems scientific discoveries are being made every day now. In any event, I will be remembered forever."
There is a fair bit of foreshadowing there too. Oppel used foreshadowing quite a lot in the course of the story. He also used dreams and letters as integral parts of the plot, giving a nod to the original novel I quite enjoyed. The plot is action packed and fast paced keeping the reader completely engaged.
I think this is a book that would appeal to both boys and girls and is a good read whether you have read Frankenstein or not. Almost everyone is familiar enough with the story for it to resonate.
The sequel, Such Wicked Intent, is due out August 21.