Kenneth Oppel writes excellent children’s books. I often struggle through fiction about animals, but he surprised me with a book about prehistoric bats that compelled me throughout. He interested me in a book set in Victoria in the 1970s (I’m mistrustful of books set in the 1960s-1970s – are authors just reliving their own childhoods?); and now he’s got me hooked on an 18th century gothic thriller.
Ken Oppel is a remarkable author – he started early, and since then, his successes have multiplied. Oppel wrote his first children’s novel while still in high school and published it pretty soon thereafter. Unlike other early-starters (I’m thinking particularly of S.E. Hinton who wrote The Outsiders and a couple other books no one has heard of) he’s published over twenty-five books and won numerous awards, including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Airborn. Every book I’ve read by him has been enjoyable. Given, I’ve stuck to the popular bat (Darkwing, etc.) and zeppelin stories (Airborn, etc.), but still – I’m sure his yeti and ghost books have their own loyal following among the younger crowd (picture books and primary respectively).
I was excited when I heard that he had another book coming out this year (right on the tail of last year’s Half Brother). The cover is grand, and the tone it sets for the story – about a young Frankenstein – seemed dark and unexpected for Oppel, whose usual mode is adventure. (Actually, a side note on covers: I’m sorry to say that kid’s Canadian covers have traditionally been poor affairs. By and large they are composed of cheesy pictures or terrible artwork and sloppy and unoriginal design work to round off the package. So many great Canadian books sit listlessly on the shelves because they are simply too ugly to buy. When my husband (who’s heard this rant before) saw the new Oppel cover, he said ironically, “well, we know it’s not Canadian.” He was shocked to hear that, indeed, this beautiful novel was!)
This Dark Endeavour: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein is set in Geneva during the 1790s (a revolutionary France plays a minor background role) and follows a crucial episode in the life of young Victor Frankenstein, son of a wealthy Swiss magistrate. Victor has an identical twin brother Konrad, and while they aren’t exactly Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it is one of those good/evil twin stories. Konrad is more athletic, academically gifted, generous and loved. Both brothers are tall, dark and handsome, but Victor broods and possesses an ambitious selfishness that inevitably leads to self-loathing. When Konrad is struck down by a mysterious disease, Victor begins to follow the path of darkness by seeking answers in the nefarious art of alchemy. The quest to heal his brother is an honorable one, but is increasingly laced with his own desire to prove himself the hero, and an alarming ability to ruthlessly pursue an end whatever the means. Of course there is a love triangle – Elizabeth is a lovely young lady in love with Konrad, but also desired by Victor. Her character contains both the dark and light found in the twins, and something about Victor attracts her, despite herself. Oppel draws out the tension between the three quite well, and we are left wondering who will triumph (very Wuthering Heights, or Twilight and Hunger Games, if you prefer).
One could argue that there’s a lot of old material here, but I think part of the appeal is settling down to a very well executed, if familiar gothic thriller (perhaps this is because I don’t regularly read the genre? Will others with more experience find it tedious?). To me, Oppel makes the traditional dark/light battle it feel fresh yet again as he paints a complex psychological portrait of a future mad scientist. One can feel the creepy and dangerous Frankenstein that will one day emerge from this misguided youth.
Unsurprisingly, the action in this book is particularly well done. I have read many an otherwise excellent novel that has action sequences that don’t make sense, that have inexplicable gaps, or that are endlessly repetitive. Oppel is an old hand at writing action – and whether it’s spelunking through dark caves, climbing towering trees in complete blackness, or fighting off preternaturally strong villains, the action scenes are finely paced and extremely visceral.
I enjoyed the unexpected ending, though I found the set-up for Victor’s future a little awkward and surprisingly unrealistic (given that I had already gone along with a potion that grants the user animalistic night-vision). Oppel has certainly allowed himself room for a sequel though This Dark Endeavour does work on its own.
Overall, though it contains weaknesses: a deliberate mixing of magic and science that I found a little frusterating; awkwardnesses in the love story plot; and a certain predictability; this is a fun read, and a compelling story that might have floundered with any less able writer at the helm. Once again, I have been surprised and charmed by Ken Oppel.