Saturday, September 24, 2011

Oppel stirs up alchemical magic in Frankenstein prequel

Kenneth Oppel in 2008 - Kenneth Oppel in 2008 | Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Reviewed by Kelley Armstrong

Reprinted from The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 23, 2011

Photo credit: copyright Fred Lum

The word “Frankenstein” often conjures up images of a block-headed monster brought to life by a mad scientist. But those familiar with Mary Shelley’s classic tale know that Frankenstein is not the monster; he is its creator, a young man driven to tragedy by ambition. In This Dark Endeavor, Kenneth Oppel adds a prologue to Shelley’s classic with a young adult novel about Victor Frankenstein, the teenager who will grow up to play God.

Oppel’s Victor is a 16-year-old living with his twin brother, Konrad, and their distant cousin, Elizabeth, in late-18th-century Switzerland. Together with their friend Henry Clerval, they enjoy the carefree lives of privileged young adults, and amuse themselves exploring the grounds, fencing and performing plays.

When Victor finds the Dark Library hidden deep in the subterranean passages beneath Chateau Frankenstein, it is like something out of their Gothic plays. After solving the riddle to enter, he discovers a library filled with arcane books, including Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Occulta Philosophia, which becomes pivotal to the story. Victor soon finds himself fascinated by this mysterious world of occult science and alchemy. Of course, he is soon in urgent need of the magic these books promise, and the true story begins.

Oppel’s past novels for children have showcased his talent for writing action-packed tales. Despite the literary premise, This Dark Endeavor is no different. It comes as no surprise to learn that Hollywood is already developing a big-screen version of this cinematic adventure. Yet Oppel doesn’t sacrifice other aspects of the story to maintain the page-turning pace. He has obviously done extensive research into the period and the history of alchemy, and his historical setting is richly developed, as are the characters who inhabit it.

The protagonist, Victor, isn’t perfect. Oppel expertly lays the groundwork for the man we know Victor will become. He is arrogant and reckless, driven by a passionate, striving intelligence and a refusal to accept natural law as inviolable. He is also a believable teenager, beginning to question authority and make his own choices. When his father tries to dissuade him by confessing his own mistakes, Victor’s reaction is typical for his age, seeing not parental concern, but hypocrisy.

Oppel doesn’t neglect the female part of his audience either. In Elizabeth, he creates a spirited young woman who refuses to be left on the sidelines during even the most dangerous adventures.

There is a final twist that seems abrupt, leading to a rushed final chapter. However, the ending does propel the story in a direction it must go, and will leave readers eagerly awaiting the sequel.

For those who have read Frankenstein, This Dark Endeavor adds a new chapter – and a fresh angle – to a familiar story. The target audience, though, is teens, most of whom will not be familiar with the source material. Fortunately, they will have no trouble enjoying this story on its own merits. This Dark Endeavor may renew interest in Frankenstein, but it also stands alone as an original and welcome addition to the world of young-adult fiction.

Kelley Armstrong is the author of the Darkest Power series for young adults.

© 2011 The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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