This Dark Endeavor
Kenneth Oppel

Morality: B-
Writing: B-

Amidst all of the horrible classic literature spin-offs out there in both the YA and adult markets, this book stands out as, if nothing else, actually readable. A teenaged Victor Frankenstein sets out to discover the alchemical Elixir of Life in a desperate quest to save the life of his identical twin brother, Konrad, who has fallen mysteriously ill. Assisting Victor are his distant cousin and secret object of affection, Elizabeth, and his good friend Henry (both of whom are significant in the original novel as well), and Victor needs all the help he can get, because this quest is a dangerous (and illegal) one. But when Victor discovers that Konrad is secretly romancing Elizabeth – and that she reciprocates – he suddenly becomes rather conflicted. After all, in spite of their close relationship, Victor has always felt that Konrad excels him in everything from social skills to physical prowess. And now he’s going to take Victor’s girl too?

I know the story sounds corny, and I guess it kind of is, but I actually had a hard time putting down this book. The author excels at balancing intense action scenes with character-based personal interaction. In fact, I was struck by how much appeal the book holds for both male and female teen readers – plenty of wild life-threatening action as well as emo love-triangle drama. (I suspect that the girls will love the action scenes and the guys will get drawn into the drama, too.) The “alchemy” that Victor practices in his attempts to create the cure looks a lot like spell-making, and though Victor insists that it’s all scientific, his friends become increasingly unsure that it’s morally acceptable. In this way, the author sets up his character and the “science” of his fictional world in a way that dovetails nicely with Mary Shelley’s original novel. There’s no hint in either book that the “science” Victor is practicing is spiritual, exactly, but it definitely seems ethically suspect.

On a moral level – and really just as a story – the book only works if Victor, who narrates the book, is taken as a morally ambiguous protagonist. To me, the author made this abundantly clear. (See the title of the book.) Victor’s motives for creating the Elixir are complex – he desperately wants to save his brother’s life, but he also wants to achieve greatness, to excel in something marvelous, and to gain power – and he’s willing to risk his life in pursuit of his aim. He is thrilled by his own lust for power, while at the same time realizing that it makes him a dangerous and less noble person. I thought Victor’s moral ambiguity was developed quite well for a YA novel – though honestly, I’m not sure that your average teen reader is going to catch the complexity. Certainly I don’t think a reader should (or is meant to) admire everything about Victor’s character here.

In context, then, Victor’s avowed atheism is not, I think, meant to be viewed as superior to the staunch faith of a couple of secondary characters, particularly Elizabeth. In fact, I thought her faith was portrayed respectfully and even positively, in spite of the fact that Victor thinks it’s pointless.

It appears this book is meant to be the first in a series. I’d be interested in seeing where the second book leads, though based on the conclusion of this volume, it seems that Victor Frankenstein is headed down dark and morally suspect paths…but we already knew that, didn’t we?

Posted by Sasha | April 20, 2011

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