Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What We’re Reading: This Dark Endeavor

If you found out that a close member of your immediate family was ill, and the doctors treating your family member seemed incapable of curing him, what would you do? Would you seek out other types of treatment--even illegal ones? Would you consult with a person convicted of practicing “dark arts,” or even attempt to practice them yourself? What would you choose to do to save a family member at risk of dying? These are some of the questions explored in Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein.

Twins Konrad and Victor Frankenstein have lived an idyllic life in the family’s chateau just outside of Geneva. Raised alongside Elizabeth, a distant cousin adopted by the family when she was five, and Henry Clerval, the son of a family friend that lives nearby, Konrad and Victor’s days are filled with all of the normal obligations for young gentlemen of their age--tutorial sessions, language lessons, and fencing drills--but they also seek out adventure at every opportunity. One of these adventures leads to the discovery of a hidden passage in their library that leads to a secret chamber filled with books about alchemy. Their father discovers them in this dark library and forbids them ever to visit it again. But when Konrad suddenly falls sick from an unknown illness and the local physicians seem unable to diagnose or treat him, Victor is drawn to these volumes in search of a cure. Is there something in these forbidden books about the dark arts that can save his brother’s life?

In This Dark Endeavor, author Kenneth Oppel creates a back story for the characters from Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. The result is an entertaining read that explores aspects of the characters mostly ignored by their original creator. Oppel pictures the Frankenstein parents as creating a liberal and progressive home life for their children, while respecting the more traditional and religious leanings of Elizabeth and their household servants. These differences in perspective provide the novel with some of its more interesting explorations of these belief systems.

However, the novel is at times less effective than it might have been if it had been about completely new characters, because those who have read Shelley's Frankenstein will know that, since the characters survive to live in her novel, the danger that sometimes threatens them cannot actually play out. The result is that this novel isn’t always as thrilling as it might have been, but is intriguing and enjoyable nonetheless. Also great fun is the unexpected way in which Oppel introduces names well known throughout horror literature.

This Dark Endeavor is the first of a series, with the second book, Such Wicked Intent, due out this month.

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