Sunday, April 6, 2014

Kenneth Oppel's This Dark Endeavor

Title: This Dark Endeavor
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Series: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein (#1)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 2011 

What Goodreads has to say:

Victor Frankenstein leads a charmed life. He and his twin brother, Konrad, and their beautiful cousin Elizabeth take lessons at home and spend their spare time fencing and horseback riding. Along with their friend Henry, they have explored all the hidden passageways and secret rooms of the palatial Frankenstein chateau. Except one.

The Dark Library contains ancient tomes written in strange languages and filled with forbidden knowledge. Their father makes them promise never to visit the library, but when Konrad becomes deathly ill, Victor knows he must find the book that contains the recipe for the legendary Elixir of Life.

The elixir needs only three ingredients. But impossible odds, dangerous alchemy and a bitter love triangle threaten their quest at every turn.

Victor knows he must not fail. Yet 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.

What I have to say:

"We found the monster on a rocky ledge high above the lake. For three dark days my brother and I had tracked it through the maze of caves to its lair on the mountain's summit. And now we beheld it, curled atop its treasure, its pale fur and scales ablaze with moonlight."

After a long fight with the monster, the narrator and his identical twin brother succeed in killing it. As the monster dies, the narrator kneels down beside it.

"'Why,' I asked her. 'Why was it only me you attacked?'  
'Because it is you,' she whispered, ' who is the real monster.'
And with that, she died, leaving me more shaken than I could describe... I turned my gaze to the pile of treasure.
'We have more than can ever be spent,' my brother murmured.  
I looked at him. 'The treasure is mine alone.'"  
... Back and forth across the ledge we fought... before long I had smacked the sword from his hand and forced him to his knees. Even as he stared at me with my own face, and pleaded with me in my own voice, I plunged the sword into his heart and stole his life.  
I gave a sigh of utter relief and looked up at the moon, felt the cool May air caress my face.  
'Now I shall have all the riches in the world,' I said. 'And I am, at last, alone.'"
So begins This Dark Endeavor, Kenneth Oppel's young adult prequel to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But don't worry, the opening scene is only a play, put on by teenage Victor Frankenstein, his twin brother Konrad, their cousin Elizabeth, and the trio's close friend Henry Clerval. Clearly, though, not everything in the play is fictitious. In fact, looking back on this opening chapter after having read the whole book, I'm kind of getting goose-bumps. The play that Victor and his friends put on introduces several of the themes that run throughout the book:

1. Monster/Animal

2. Twins

3. Sharing "treasure"

4. Being alone

In listing the themes or undercurrents of the novel, I would only add one more to this list:

5. Science vs. Religion vs. Alchemy

That's not to say that these were the only themes of the book, but they were the main ones that I detected. I'd like to explore some of them in greater detail, because I think that the way the author sets up these themes and then has his characters interact with them is very interesting and well-thought-out. But first, I'd like to record some of my overall impressions of the book, as this is primarily a book review.

First of all, let me just say that I really loved this book. It had its faults (which I will get to in a second) but over all I found it extremely engaging, very well-written and at times thought-provoking, and wonderfully Gothic. In other words, the author delivered. Because Frankenstein itself is engaging, thought-provoking, and the most successful Gothic novel of all time, readers who pick up a prequel to Mary Shelley's classic would expect it to incorporate all of these things as well, though perhaps on a slightly smaller scale (as it is a YA novel). And that is just what Kenneth Oppel gives us.

There were many times when I could not put this book down. I had to read just one more chapter, not only to find out what happened next, but also because the writing was so fun and the main character so interesting. It's been a while since I've read anything so engaging, especially towards the end. It was super intense. Also, a word of caution, this book gets rather violent in its final chapters (it is the prequel to Frankenstein, after all). It was pretty bloody and a little sickening. Also riveting.

At several points in the novel, I was surprised by the deep questions the story was engaging with, as well as by the way that the author dealt with these questions. For example, I was not expecting to find in a YA thriller a deep discussion on Atheism and religion. Victor's family is very liberal and thus he and his parents are atheists; but his cousin Elizabeth was raised by nuns and is a devout Catholic. Victor's parents never discourage Elizabeth from practicing her religion, even going so far as to make sure that she has a ride to Mass whenever she needs it. As the story progresses and the lives of all the characters darken, many of them begin to find out just how far their beliefs go, and if the stance they have taken on the subject of religion is in fact the right one. The author never directly answers this question, but definitely prompts readers to think about it through the lens of the story.

Finally, this novel was CREEPY. And by that, I don't mean that it kept me up at night imagining things coming at me out of the darkness, or that it gave me nightmares. I mean that it was deliciously creepy, in true Gothic style. There is a hidden library in the Frankenstein family mansion, containing forbidden books on alchemy and magic. Elizabeth sleepwalks at night, but she never remembers it in the morning. The forest nearby houses fierce animals like wolves and vultures, and there are caves beneath the lake that contain monstrous fish thought by many to be extinct. You get the idea. This is a book that makes you shiver, but in such a way that you want to shiver again.

Another thing I loved about this book was that it is indeed a prequel - and a very careful and thoughtful prequel at that. Kenneth Oppel has obviously done his homework and, as far as I can tell, thought a great deal about the original novel by Mary Shelley. He sets everything up perfectly, and adds new layers to the story of Frankenstein. One example, and something that I particularly enjoyed about this story, is the protagonist: Victor Frankenstein. He is a very likeable character (at least in my opinion) and easy to empathize with, but he is also deeply flawed in all of the ways that Mary Shelley's protagonist is flawed: he's rather arrogant, so passionate that he sometimes frightens Elizabeth, and dead-set on accomplishing something once he's fixed his mind to it, whether or not it's a good idea.

That being said (and I think this may be my one criticism of the novel) there were a few moments in the book that were so obviously hearkening forward to Frankenstein that I almost laughed aloud. Some examples are: a street named "Wollstonecraft Alley;" a metaphor around the middle of the book that makes a comparison with a ship locked in ice; and Elizabeth's dream about her wedding day, in which a strange voice tells her, "I will be with you on your wedding night." Though that last one is kind of interesting, as the voice could actually belong to a few different characters - Victor, Konrad, and of course the monster, included. These moments in the book were really the only places where I felt that the author might be straining a little too hard in order to build a connection with Frankenstein. I guess it felt somewhat forced. But, I must admit that I also kind of enjoyed these moments. They were nods to people who had read Frankenstein, and it was fun to "pick them out" even if that didn't require much effort. Maybe my problem is that these nods made it so that This Dark Endeavor was not a self-contained book. And to the objection that a prequel is never self-contained (if anyone wants to make that objection) I point to The Hobbit. The Hobbit is self-contained because you don't have to read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in order to understand The Hobbit. I've never heard of anyone just reading The Hobbit and never going on to the trilogy, and certainly you will have a richer, deeper experience if you read all of the books; but you can read just The Hobbit and not have any confusion resulting from not having read the trilogy beforehand. Part of that is undoubtedly because Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first - his original readers (as well as himself) didn't have the trilogy in front of them: they only had the "prequel" which wasn't even a prequel at the time, but a stand alone novel. And I promise this is not a review about The Hobbit, so I'll get back to This Dark Endeavor. My point is that, when you insert things into your book which readers will only understand and/or enjoy if they've read another book, you limit your audience and, I think, weaken your own story - because you're relying on that other story to make your story more enjoyable. But this is a minor criticism, and it didn't prevent me from enjoying the story.

And now that I have given you my general impressions, I'd like to get back to the opening scene of the story and give you a taste for how it introduces the major themes of the novel.

1. Monster/Animal

This first chapter is titled, "Monster," which gave me pause for a moment. Thinking back on it, it gives me even more pause. Who is the monster that the title refers to? Just reading the title on its own, before plunging into the actual text, I thought of Frankenstein's monster, and I assume that is primarily what Oppel meant his readers to think of. But once we get into the chapter itself, things become more complicated. Obviously, there is the fictional monster in the play, who the main character and his brother must slay in order to free the town and break the enchantment. I will call this monster #2, as monster #1 is the original monster created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's novel. But then, Elizabeth (Victor's cousin) wears the costume of the monster and acts as the monster in the play, so could she be the monster referred to in the title (monster #3)? Then, of course, there is the possibility that Victor himself is the monster, since the play monster tells him so with her dying breath ("It is you who are the real monster"). And what makes this question even more interesting is that it seems equally possible for all of these candidates to be the monster based on supporting evidence from the text. I'll skip over monsters #1 and #2, because those two are kind of obvious, and move on to Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is beautiful, devoutly religious, and often gentle and kind. But she has a dark side.... (cue dramatic music). As already mentioned, she sleepwalks. She also has a resolve and a passion fully capable of matching Victor's. When Victor, Henry, and Elizabeth venture into the Sturmwald forest and are attacked by vultures, Elizabeth bites one in defense. At another point, she helps Victor rip open an animal and search through its organs. In short, Victor's claim that his twin brother, Konrad, sees Elizabeth's angel, but he sees her animal, seems well justified.

But the obvious candidate for monster is Victor himself. Probably we do not even need to read This Dark Endeavor to know that; Frankenstein is enough. But This Dark Endeavor is full of evidence, nonetheless. Despite his deep love for his brother, Victor is insanely jealous of Konrad, and willing to go to great lengths to prove that he is at least the equal of his twin. Also, despite his brotherly love, he deceives and steals from Konrad. When Elizabeth writes a note to Konrad, Victor intercepts it and doesn't tell his brother. When Elizabeth meets Victor in the dark and thinks that he is Konrad, Victor does not enlighten her. Besides this, there are the character flaws I have already briefly mentioned above. He is proud, even arrogant, with a desperate need, that manifests itself repeatedly, to do things on his own in order to prove something to someone. Also he is driven by an almost demonic passion. He completely disregards his father's orders over and over again, even breaking the laws of the city in order to succeed in his "dark endeavor."

Maybe the title of "monster" does not belong to one character alone. There need not be only one monster whom we call the monster; it is truer and far more interesting to see each individual character as "monstrous" or animalistic in their own way. The book does not contain one sole, definitive monster, but several.

Anyway, I hope my discussion of this topic has given you a taste for how delightfully complex and multi-faceted this book is. Also, it's a lot of fun. So if you're looking for a good read, go ahead and pick it up. Let me know what you think.

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