N.B.: This is a review containing spoilers, so read at your own discretion.
“There is a passion in you that scares me,” declares both Elizabeth and the back of the book This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel. This tale follows 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein as he searches for something to save his twin brother Konrad from his life-threatening immune-system disease. Victor, Konrad, and Elizabeth, all healthy, stumble upon a secret library of occult books, including authors like Cornelius Agrippa. Victor’s father discovers the trio there and elicits from them a promise never to visit the library again. After Konrad falls ill and nothing can cure him, Victor revisits the library and finds a book that promises the recipe for the Elixir of Life. However, the recipe is in an arcane alphabet the key to which has been long lost. Finally, along with Elizabeth and their slightly squeamish friend Henry, he finds a book that has the key to the code, but it is very old and was damaged in a fire, so most of it cannot be deciphered.
After locating an alchemist who can help them decipher the code, Victor gets to work. He goes into the forest at night, during a storm, up a tree with dangerous birds, all to find some moss. He goes down into some dangerous caves to catch a fish whose oil is needed for the elixir. Lastly, he allows the alchemist to cut off two of his fingers for the bone marrow (rather gruesome, no?). The alchemist turns out to be a traitor, wanting the elixir only for himself, and thus ensues a battle between Victor, the alchemist, and the alchemist’s unsettlingly intelligent cat.
Once the elixir has been snatched from the evil alchemist, it is administered to a sleeping Konrad in the dead of night. The next morning he immediately improves, and it seems as if he will be completely well again. But the very next night he dies in his sleep. After burying his twin, feeling guilty that perhaps he killed his brother, Victor vows to find some way to bring Konrad back to life.
Now, you would think that Victor would’ve learned his lesson the first time, right? If he feels that guilty about maybe being the cause of his brother’s death through alchemy, then why the heck would he (most likely) use the same methods to bring him back to life? He is a 16-year-old, and 16-year-olds don’t always think logically. But that’s one of the biggest problems: Victor is motivated solely by his passions. It’s almost as if he wants to give into a sort of animal instinct: when he intercepts the note Elizabeth sends to Konrad and they meet in secret, he pretends to be Konrad and when he kisses her he ends up biting her lip. And when they are in the forest at night gathering the moss, Victor and Elizabeth use a compound to dilate their pupils called the “eyes of the wolf” or “sight of the wolf” or some such thing. They are then said to feel a wolfish kinship to each other, and Elizabeth even bites one of the birds that attacks them. This idea of giving into one’s animal instinct, especially as it is tied to Victor and Elizabeth’s feelings for one another, is rather disturbing.
Despite this element, I think that Kenneth Oppel did a good job of articulating, although not explaining, Victor’s attraction to alchemy as a source of power. I don’t recall that Mary Shelley does in the original Frankenstein (it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it), and there is not always an explanation for such things, other than human nature. Both Frankensteins show an aptitude and obsession with alchemy and the occult, and in so doing manifest an extreme desire for power. The biggest difference between the two is that Shelley’s Frankenstein realizes his mistake and attempts to correct it. Oppel’s Frankenstein decides to continue on the same course, even though all that he has done has resulted in trouble and is not good. Also, I do not recall the original Victor Frankenstein being so arrogant and jealous. The jealousy factor was of course introduced for the sake of the story, as Victor did not have a twin in Shelley’s version. An interesting book nonetheless, but not one I want to read more than once.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars