October 05, 2011

This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein

by Kenneth Oppel
HarperCollins Canada
298 pp.
Ages 12+

With Mary Shelley's early 19th century tome as the basis for Kenneth Oppel's This Dark Endeavour, young readers can look forward to a complex fantasy with compelling characters who blur our perceptions of good and evil.

In this first book of an inevitable series, sixteen-year-old Victor Frankenstein, true to Shelley’s character, enjoys the privileged life of a son of one of Geneva’s magistrates. When his twin brother Konrad falls deathly ill, Victor is relentless in his pursuing an alchemical cure, inspired by the discovery of a Dark Library (Biblioteka Obscura), concealed by an ancestor beneath Chateau Frankenstein.  This ancestor, Wilhelm Frankenstein, practiced witchcraft and alchemy, rituals condemned by the Church and deemed illegal by the state, and, although prohibited by his father from engaging in these activities, Victor enlists the help of their cousin, Elizabeth, and close friend, Henry Clerval, to solicit the expertise of a censured apothecary/alchemist, Julius Polidori.  Polidori, a broken man, living with his pet lynx, Krake, translates a recipe for the Elixir of Life, sending the young people out for its unique ingredients.

In this pursuit, Victor discovers much about himself, not always favourable, including an envy of his brother’s accomplishments, such as winning the love of Elizabeth. The emotional conflict Victor experiences both compels and repulses him.  More like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his vacillation between good and evil, Victor reveals himself as the conflicted Frankenstein of Mary Shelley.  Just as author Shane Peacock has taken us into the formative years of Sherlock Holmes in his The Boy Sherlock Holmes books, Oppel proposes the experiences and struggles from which the Victor Frankenstein of monster-creating fame arose.

The writing is gloriously dark and laden with dread while evocative of a time when exploration and imagination bore narratives that were both naive and horrifying. 

Luckily, Victor’s final vow will leave the young reader anticipating the next book in Oppel’s brilliant new series.  

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