Thursday, March 15, 2012

This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

Well-known Canadian author, Kenneth Oppels' newest novel presents readers with a inventive imagining of the life of young Victor Frankenstein before he created his famous monster. This Dark Endeavour is a modern return to the Gothic thriller that tells the story of Victor, his twin brother Konrad, and their cousin Elizabeth Lavenza and friend Henry Clerval as they undertake a very dark endeavour - the search for the Elixir of Life.

Victor and Konrad, are the twin sons of William Frankenstein who is one of four magistrates in the city-republic of Geneva. The Frankensteins, whose family consists of Victor and Konrad, and their younger brothers, Ernest and William, live in a chateau outside the city.

One day Victor, Konrad, Elizabeth and Henry discover an abandoned library in the basement of the chateau. The creepy library which is filled with old volumes containing information about the occult, was built by their ancestor, Wilhelm Frankenstein when the chateau was constructed. Wilhelm was an alchemist who became involved in the occult and eventually abandoned the chateau and his family, never to be heard from again. The library was known as the Dark Library because it contained many books banned by the Catholic church. Victor and Konrad are told by their father that the books do not contain knowledge but a corruption of knowledge and that they must never return. Of course, this serves only to pique their interest, as we see later on. For Victor, it remains a fascination he cannot deny.

When Konrad becomes deathly ill, Victor decides that he must try to find a cure for his brother's illness. When he overhears a maid telling his mother that there are other ways to heal, Victor becomes convinced that he must return to the Dark Library to learn more. He also learns the name of an alchemist, Julius Polidori, still living in Geneva and he and Henry and Elizabeth set out to find him.

Reluctantly, Polidori agrees to help them in their dark endeavour. He translates the recipe for the Elixir of Life and sends them on a quest for the three ingredients necessary to make this potion. It is this quest and the relationship they have with Polidori that form the storyline for the book. It is a quest that pits the two brothers against one another and involves them in the forbidden practice of alchemy.

This is the first book of Kenneth Oppel's that I have read and I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style. His characters are realistic and interesting. Although Victor and Konrad are twins, we see that Victor has the darker personality of the two. It's almost like a Jekyll and Hyde split. Konrad is a better student, and has a more pleasant nature, whereas Victor is more passionate, impulsive and has a cruel streak. This difference in their natures is effectively contrasted in the way that they relate to their cousin, Elizabeth, whom they both love. Their rivalry for the love of Elizabeth is one of the many dark themes of the novel. The characterization is effective enough that the reader is easily drawn to like Konrad and Elizabeth while feeling a bit of revulsion towards Victor, whose intensity is a stark reminder of the future he has!

There are plenty of religious themes to explore, especially relating to magic, and the proper use of knowledge.

The novel's unique storyline is enhanced by Oppel's smart, witty dialogue. This Dark Endeavour is the first in the Victor Frankenstein series, with the next installment, Such Wicked Intent due out in the summer of 2012. It's been years since I read Frankenstein and maybe it's time I reread Mary Shelley's book.

Book Details:
This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel
Toronto: Harper Collins 2011
297 pp.

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