Tuesday 25 October 2011

Review: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel

The purest intentions can stir up the darkest obsessions.

In this prequel to Mary Shelley's gothic classic, Frankenstein, 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein begins a dark journey that will change his life forever. Victor's twin, Konrad, has fallen ill, and no doctor is able to cure him. Unwilling to give up on his brother, Victor enlists his beautiful cousin Elizabeth and best friend Henry on a treacherous search for the ingredients to create the forbidden Elixir of Life. Impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn.

Victor knows he must not fail. But his success depends on how far he is willing to push the boundaries of nature, science, and love - and how much he is willing to sacrifice.

Back in July I was one of a number of bloggers invited to a bloggers' brunch held by the nice people at Random House Children's Books. During their presentation about their forthcoming titles there was one book that really stood out for me: This Dark Endeavour by Kenneth Oppel. I first stumbled across Mr Oppel's work through his brilliant Airborn (and sequels), and with his writing talent now being focused on a prequel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein how could I be anything but very excited?

This excitement was not misplaced. I had expected a dark, gothic horror-based story but instead I got so much more. The horror element is more psychological than most stories of this genre written for teens these days - rather than gore it relies on steadily building tension through some pretty dark scenes, interwoven between scenes of pure action and adventure, with a smattering of romance thrown in for good measure. However, for those of you who hate the 'R' word it is an essential part of the story, and anyway it is certainly not the sort of romance that will have boys throwing the book across the room in despair.

This Dark Endeavour tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein and his twin brother, Konrad. Just as with many twins, the two boys differ in personality quite considerably: Konrad is the laid-back, confident one who seems to be good at everything he lends his hand to, whilst Victor often feels in his shadow. This feeling of inadequacy grows even more in Victor's mind when he discovers that his growing love for his cousin Elizabeth is not reciprocated, and instead she and Konrad are fast becoming an item. Despite their differences though, Victor and Konrad and very close and when Konrad falls dangerously ill with some mysterious condition Victor will do anything to try to make in better.

I am not an expert on the period in which the story is set so I am not able to comment on the accuracy of the author's historical detailing. However, accurate or not, the quality of his prose gave me a very real sense of being there in eighteenth century Switzerland. It was a time when science, religion and superstition were 'battling it out' for supremacy in the minds of many of the inhabitants of Europe, and despite the massive leaps that were being made in the various fields of science there was still a belief by some in the ancient study of alchemy. Early on in the story Victor stumbles across a hidden 'Dark Library' within the family home, a room lined with shelves full of mysterious, heretical and potentially dangerous books. When it seems that no doctor is able to cure his brother, it is to one of these such books that he turns, and from this moment the story starts to be engulfed by a sinister darkness.

To outline the adventures that Victor embarks upon in search of the ingredients he requires in order that a potion can be made would be to spoil the story for you. There are moments where you would be hiding behind a cushion if this were a film or TV drama, but where another author may have created a little more blood splatter, Oppel relies purely on his ability to get into the minds of his readers, much as Mary Shelley did with her original story. In fact, on finishing this I immediately re-read her story (yet again), and with this as a comparison I felt that Mr Oppel had done a great job of protraying the voice of the young Victor Frankenstein.

If you want something a little more challenging and psychologically scary than the likes of Higson and Shan for your Hallowe'en reading (or for that matter at any time of the year) then you really should give this book a try. I believe it is the first book in a pair of stories, and I for one am really looking forward to seeing where Mr Oppel takes us next. My thanks go to the good people at David Fickling Books for sending me this book to review.