A love triangle, some Frankensteins, and the Elixir of Life: This Dark Endeavour

I came to This Dark Endeavour with high expectations. Great reviews, an author who never disappoints, and some seriously swoony recommendations from the diehard grade seven girl readers in my library, combined to make me pretty excited to crack this one open. I read it in two days and the sequel, Such Wicked Intent, was the first purchase I made when our school secretary handed me back my library credit card after the summer.

In This Dark Endeavour, Kenneth Oppel offers readers his vision of Victor Frankenstein’s young adulthood in an inventive and wholly satisfying prequel to Mary Shelley’s classic. Sixteen-year-old Victor leads a life of privilege in Chateau Frankenstein, with his twin brother Konrad, their cousin Elizabeth, and the rest of his family. Exploring the castle is a favourite pastime, and one afternoon, by chance, the three teenagers come upon a new passageway behind the library wall. It leads to a strange library in a chamber deep beneath the castle, filled with rows of ancient texts and odd instruments and tools that seem to belong in an apothecary’s shop.  When their father finds Elizabeth and his sons in the library, he makes them promise never to visit the dark place again as he claims they will only uncover corrupt knowledge and wickedness there. Soon after, Konrad falls dangerously ill, and it seems that nothing will cure him. Victor sneaks back to the library for answers and when he discovers a book containing the formula for the Elixir of Life, he knows he must try to create it to save his brother’s life. This leads to a partnership with an enigmatic alchemist and then to seemingly impossible quests to source the ingredients for the elixir. As time passes, Victor becomes more consumed by his desire to succeed, pushing himself, and those he loves, past the point of reason, towards the greatest dangers they have ever faced.

Kenneth Oppel has always been very good at getting you to turn the pages of his books. This Dark Endeavour is certainly as exciting as anything he has ever written. The pacing is perfect. I never feel though, like he is sacrificing character development for action. Victor comes across as a passionate, misguided, conflicted risk-taker, and I enjoyed not being sure what he was going to do next thoughout the story. You don’t feel like you trust him – or his motives – and that creates great tension. He’s complicated and certainly not always sympathetic. The love triangle between Victor, Konrad and Elizabeth (who is a distant cousin – don’t get all creeped out), will surely hook YA readers who’ve come to more or less expect to find this element in the adventure / thriller genre. I’d say Oppel gets the romantic aspect of his book just right. It’s sexy enough without ever becoming too blatant or distracting for readers who might be reading more for the thrill of the action adventure than the romance.

Speaking of action, there was one moment at the end of the book when I actually gasped after turning the page. I can’t remember the last time that’s happened to me. The ending is satisfying but also leaves you with that gimmee-the-sequel-right-now feeling that many teens, and adults, crave. Good thing I have the sequel on my desk as I write this. I’ll just have to read it secretly (and quickly) before the grade sevens start stalking me for it every recess.

This Dark Endeavour is published by Harper Collins.

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