Brent Hartinger's Reviews > This Dark Endeavor

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel
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Feb 10, 12

it was amazing
Read in January, 2012

I’m rarely disappointed in a book by Ken Oppel, but his latest, This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, may be my favorite yet.

Yes, it’s the story of a teenage Victor Frankenstein, and normally I’m not a fan of these “before they were famous” retellings of classic figures from myth or literature (for that matter, I’m not a big fan of reboots and reimaginings in general). But I’m making an exception in this case, if only because the book is so masterfully plotted and written.

Victor Frankenstein has always lived in the shadow of his twin, Konrad Frankenstein. To make matters even more infuriating, Konrad is a genuinely great guy. It just makes sense that their mutual friend Elizabeth would be more attracted to Konrad. One point, not quite intending to be cruel, she says outright that although Victor and Konrad are identical, they’re nothing alike.

So it also stands to reason that when Konrad falls victim to a mysterious illness, Victor would be particularly driven to explore the secret library in the bowels of his father’s castle searching for a cure. Finally, he has an opportunity to both win Konrad’s respect and Elizabeth’s love.

This being the foreshadow-y retelling one of the most tragic figures in all of literature, things don’t go quite as planned, of course.

And this is perhaps what I liked most about the book: it gives us a plausible, yet mostly unexpected explanation as to how Victor ended up where we all know he does. He wasn’t born to play God — he had to be driven there. The book does a smashing job of showing us, in big and small ways, how Victor, a very flawed character to begin with, does things that, well, make a lot of sense at the time.

Like the best flawed characters, he’s sympathetic. There but for the grace of God (and hopefully a little less ego) go I.

There are two big twists in the book, the first of which caught me completely by surprise — even though it had been telegraphed strongly and cleanly. I love it when that happens.

Oppel is perhaps most well-known for the steampunk Airborn books (the first of which won the Printz Award). This Dark Endeavor isn’t quite steampunk, although it takes place in a sort of an alternative 19th century Switzerland, at the cusp of the age of science (directly after an age of alchemy). This was a wise (but subtle) artistic choice: writing in 1818, Mary Shelley, of course, set the original Frankenstein in the “real” world, but science soon eclipsed the novel. The only way the story can be taken seriously now is in exactly the alternative dimension described here, which is perfectly executed.

One quibble: as much as I think the title is evocative and wonderfully representative of the genre, I can never remember the damn thing!

The story continues in Such Wicked Intent, coming in August, and a major movie version (from the producers of the Twilight films, alas) is reportedly in the works.
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