Fans of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or anyone interested in gothic horror, This Dark Endeavor is for you. Kenneth Oppel, of the popular Silverwing series, imagines the tumultuous teenage years of Victor Frankenstein and how tragic events turned him to dark alchemy and an obsessive search to create life. Characters from the original, such as Elizabeth and Henry Clerval are all present and important here, but the new addition is Victor’s twin brother, Konrad. Konrad is caring and thoughtful while Victor is headstrong and rash, and, as you can imagine, this leads to conflict. However, there is lots of love between the brothers as evidenced by Victor’s determination to save Konrad when he falls deathly ill.
The main plot revolves around obtaining the three ingredients needed to complete an Elixir of Life for Konrad, and this is where I have my biggest problem. While the three steps motif is common in fantasy, in this case it feels overused and unimaginative. The trials they go through to obtain the first two ingredients exist for something exciting to happen, rather than to reveal character. The outcome is predictable and scenes lose tension.
The strength of this system is that for the third and final ingredient, there is no guarantee that it will be found or administered correctly. Most importantly, there is a strong emotional element tied to the action, as there always should be, creating the suspense that powers the last act of the book. I’ve heard that this book is already being optioned for a movie and with the spectacular action here, I can see why.
Unfortunately, the final few pages leave a lot to be desired. Anyone who’s read the real Frankenstein, and probably those who haven’t, can take a stab at the ending, but the how is often more important than the what. In this case, the end felt rushed and unresolved.
You can’t, however, fault Oppel on his prose. The descriptions of Geneva’s mountains and lakes paint a pretty picture, while Chateau Frankenstein is dutifully ominous. The dialogue has a satisfying Old English sound, but is easy to understand without being anachronistic. The book finds its legs working with the dark tone expected of gothic horror.
In addition, the characters are well drawn, with clear motivation and thought behind their actions. There is the subplot of a love triangle between Konrad, Victor, and Elizabeth, which in lesser hands could have been boring, but with Oppel succeeds because the characters are so well defined.
Outside of the main plot, the book covers a lot of ground in a few pages. There are ruminations on science, religion, obsession, family, and love. Oppel never takes a clear stand on the issues, and truthfully doesn’t have much original to say, but it is nice to see the book have some ambitions besides being spooky.
Bottom line: Yes it’s predictable, but the writing rests solidly on an eerie atmosphere and well drawn characters. A nice companion piece to the Mary Shelley classic.
Evan is a learning teenage writer whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.