Love, loyalty, loss, and obsession, all linger at the heart of Kenneth Oppel's This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein , a gripping narrative of the early years of Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, his family, and the passions that ultimately consumed him. I am often wary of prequels to classic novels, but I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised and more than a little short of breath by the time I read the final sentence of this, dare I say, masterpiece. Having recently read Shelley's Frankenstein , I was not entirely sure how this attempt at a childhood story of the mad doctor would turn out. Hours after finishing the novel, I am already anxious for another installment.
Victor tells the story from his perspective, detailing his relationship with his twin brother Konrad, his cousin Elizabeth, and his friend Henry, as they enter a world of alchemy and pseudo-science. The three children come across a hidden library one day, deep within the bowels of the Frankenstein chateau, an eerily spectacular castle sitting on the edge of Lake Geneva. The Dark Library, as it is named, holds shelf upon shelf of dusty tomes from long-dead philosophers, alchemists, and mad-men. Victor's father is insistent that the children stay away from the library for fear that they will be seduced by the false knowledge hidden on the brittle, dusty pages. But one day, Konrad falls mysteriously ill, and even after a number of physicians, including Dr.Murnau—a delightful nod to W. F. Murnau of Nosferatu fame—are unable to find anything but a temporary cure, Victor, Elizabeth, and Henry, try to find a cure on their own.
Aided by a mysterious old alchemist named Julius Poidori, who lives in the city, the three friends embark on a series of adventures to find ingredients for the Elixir of Life, an ancient recipe written in an almost unreadable language. Along the way, Victor finds out about a deeper, romantic connection between Konrad and Elizabeth. With this knowledge, mixed with jealousy and the possibility of an elixir that can cure all ills and prevent death—with the exception of the most violent or gruesome kind—he becomes ever more obsessed in his quest. Soon after the elixir is complete, he discovers that he is not the only one who has developed a deep and frightening desire to obtain it.
Oppel's characters are incredibly complex, with the possible exception of Victor and Konrad's mother—who is often peripheral, though still strong when she shows up—and all seem to have some dark secret that motivates them throughout the novel. What starts out as an innocent quest for a medicine to cure Konrad quickly turns into a dark and twisted game of survival, secrets, and deceit, and the further they all continue, the less likely it is that any of them will actually win. This book is a work of fiction that goes beyond the limits of a simple prequel, often seeming as if Mary Shelley, herself, might have imagined the world and history of the Frankenstein family that Oppel has created. Oppel's mastery of language, and his ability to provoke a multitude of emotions, shines through, in This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein
Highly Recommended. (4/4 STARS)