A Review of This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book One by Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster, 2011
by REBECCA, February 10, 2012
Victor Frankenstein: impulsive and mischievous teen with a taste for theatrics and daredevilry
Konrad Frankenstein: more docile and charming firstborn twin and Victor’s other half
Elizabeth Lavenza: adventurous and smart cousin-sister-friend of the twins
Henry Clerval: Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth’s best friend; many-phobia-ed budding playwright
Alphonse Frankenstein: the twins’ father, a liberal and a scholar
Julius Polidori: an elderly former alchemist with an underground laboratory
Dr. Murnau: cutting-edge scientist who awakes Victor’s interest in the natural sciences
Krake: Polidori’s lynx familiar
How far would you go and what would you risk to save your soul mate? When Konrad falls ill, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry undertake a grand and dangerous adventure to save his life. Forever.
As you likely guessed from the self-explanatory title, this is a story of Victor Frankenstein (that’s Dr. Frankenstein, to you, thank you, he worked hard for that degree in creative revivification) in his early years. As this is a prequel to Frankenstein, it takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, during the French Revolution. Now, before you say to yourself: self, I don’t appreciate when random authors think they can do whatever they like with the most perfect novel ever written—or, for that matter: self, I don’t dig historical fiction and I don’t understand why Frankenstein has all those glaciers in it—pause to consider several things.
First, This Dark Endeavor is a totally contemporary-feeling young adult novel, so it doesn’t feel like historical fiction at all, except in a bit of a Jacques-Tardi-adventure-punk way.
Second, for all that it has the word “apprenticeship” in the title, this is really an adventure story. It contains tree-climbing, animal-evading, death- and parent-defying shenanigans, and, yes, the wrestling of a giant prehistoric fish. Indeed, Victor isn’t really much for the old book-learning, even if he does become fascinated by the dark arts. He’d really rather explore things, or jump off of them. Konrad is the better student; perhaps even the better human being, Victor sometimes feels—and Victor often waits to see what Konrad’s response is before he knows how he feels. So, when Konrad suddenly becomes ill, Victor sees for the first time what it is to be truly alone (ah! “alone, bad; friends, good”—break my heart). Bereft and terrified, he will stop at nothing to save his brother.
Now, anyone who knows me at all knows that I have a vast soft spot for monomaniacs, especially when their pursuits aren’t purely selfish. While Victor begins the novel with nothing more than a curious spirit and a desire to “create something, some great work that will be useful and marvelous to all humanity,” his drive to save Konrad (or is that his only goal?) quickly enters the monomaniacal territory that Frankenstein readers will recognize (35).
The setting—the streets, forests, and lake of Geneva, and the Frankenstein family château—is well-drawn, but not belabored, as it is merely the backdrop for the adventures and discoveries that unfold. The real treat for me was watching the character of Victor emerge from an ordinary teenage boy to the driven, tormented man we know he will become. Oppel has a light touch, and he manages to create the circumstances for this development realistically and without preciousness as it regards Frankenstein. This was impressive, indeed, especially given that Oppel did indulge in multiple references to Shelley’s novel and its intertexts, which will likely tickle Frankenstein enthusiasts and pass benignly under the notice of others.
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
Oppel seemed interested in similar things about Victor’s life as I would be: what sparked his interest in science? how did that interest, ahem, grow to take on a life of its own? what’s the big f-ing deal about Elizabeth, anyway? is Victor actually super-smart or just deluded? There is no moralizing here, even when the Frankensteins’ liberal atheism butts up against Elizabeth’s Catholic tendencies; Oppel offers no answers to the budding questions raised about life, death, and nature. Nah, he’s too busy writing a fast-paced adventure story, even if the goal of that adventure is of the alchemical sort:
Elizabeth gave a shriek, for the answer had come from behind us. We all whirled to behold, standing in the doorway, Father.
“You’ve discovered the Biblioteka Obscura, I see,” he said, torchlight and shadow dancing disconcertingly over his craggy face. . . . “And would I be right in assuming, Victor, that you were the one to shake hands with the door?”
I heard Konrad chuckle.
“Yes,” I admitted, “and it very nearly crushed my hand!”
“No,” said my father, “it was not designed to crush the hand, just hold on to it. Forever.”
I looked at him, shocked. “Truly?”
“When I discovered this secret passage as a young man, no one had descended the stairs for more than two hundred years. And the last person to do so was still here. What remained of him, anyway. The bones of his forearm dangled from the door. The rest of his ruined body had fallen into the shaft.”
“We wondered if we’d seen . . . a finger bone down there,” Elizabeth said.
“No doubt I missed a bit”’ said father. (21)
In short, This Dark Endeavor is not such a dark endeavor, after all. Oppel’s companion novel has very little of Shelley’s doom and gloom “workshop of filthy creation.” It’s more a château of slightly besmudgéd creation. Oppel uses the details and backstory of Shelley’s original as a canvas on which he paints his own picture of a particular moment in which a group of teenagers come of age through their quest—a bit like a Stand By Me for the upper class 18th century set. I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a superficial story, simply that Oppel doesn’t treat the material with such deference that he is afraid to have fun with it. The writing and pacing are deft, but not showy, and the story immediately engaging, even if it isn’t particularly complex.
I feel honor-bound to mention that I worship Shelley’s Frankenstein. This, of course, made me delighted by the prospect of this novel, as well as dubious that it would be able to do much more than flesh out the backstory that Shelley already gave us. Also, I think I expected Victor to be something like a youthful combination of Snape and Heathcliff: a dark and brooding potions savant. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case. One thing that I was particularly looking forward to in this book was the potential character development of my favorite Frankenstein character, Henry Clerval. While Victor is busy grave-robbing and corpse-knitting, Henry is, you know, writing poems and reading books, and probably wearing flowers in his buttonholes. So, while we do get a view of the teenaged Clerval, he’s not particularly developed and we miss out on seeing the seeds of their mutual love and admiration. Ah, well, perhaps in the next installment.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (2007). Both books engage historical mysteries/quests for knowledge in appealing and unique ways.
Procured from: I received this book from the publisher and was in no way bribed or compensated to write this review.