The Story: This Dark Endeavor, the first book in The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series by Kenneth Oppel, introduces readers to a teenage Dr. Frankenstein along with his brother Konrad and cousin Elizabeth. Together, the trio braves dangerous, forbidden places; but when Konrad falls ill, Victor seeks out the only possible cure – the legendary Elixir of Life. Driven by an intense (and quite possibly insane) desire to save his brother, Victor ventures into darkness and makes company with mystical neer-do-wells to try to find a cure before time runs out.
My Take: This novel might sound corny up front – Dr. Frankenstein as a teen? That seems like it has train wreck written all over it. But believe it or not, This Dark Endeavor isn’t lame – at least as far as its premise goes. Sadly, the novelty factor ends there.
I had moderate hopes for this book. Not high. Not low. Just in between. I don’t think the idea itself was bad and the plot held together for the most part, but it lacked the spark it could have possessed. After all, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is classic Gothic fiction, classic Regency fiction, classic horror, and classic everything else; so there was a huge pool to draw from in terms of tone, themes, and even environment. Frankenstein is like a big juicy steak served with a monstrous (pun intended) baked potato – it’s rich, filling, and dense as it makes you think about it, so when it’s over you’re left feeling like this (in keeping with the food theme here)…
But This Dark Endeavor is more like a microwave dinner – small, shallow, and not truly satisfying. Sure, you have your standard paranormal/Gothic elements and the inclusion of alchemy here is nice, but it’s all very textbook. This novel is paced more like a checklist of Must Haves for Gothic Fiction without really considering why those elements even belonged in the first place.
Likewise, this novel falls into the same trap most recent YA fiction does with the dreaded love triangle. Honestly, I’m sick and tired of this trope. The Hunger Games did a good job with it, Twilight made it annoying, and every other teen lit book falls somewhere in between. Though the creepiness factor gets amped up in this book since the female participant in the triangle is a “relative.” How’s that for “romance”? (Okay, to be fair, Frankenstein showcased a near-incest relationship, too, but its intent was to demonstrate how obsessed, deranged, and fallen Dr. Victor Frankenstein was. Rule Number One, guys: Don’t let mad scientists date your sister. Or any other female relative.)
In any case, the characters in This Dark Endeavor do stand on their own as characters in that they’re there and they do stuff, but there isn’t any strong harkening back to the original source material other than Victor literally does almost anything to save his brother’s life. But all of the introspective, intelligent, gripping dialogue the “real” Frankenstein delivers in Shelley’s work is left on the cutting room floor here and, instead, young Victor is just another brooding, angst-ridden teen.
(Indeed – in same cases I believe it is.)
Plot-wise, this novel was interesting enough to keep me (speed) reading until the end. I was actually okay with it all until the final few chapters and was willing to accept this book as just another fluffy YA read. Afterwards, I never wanted to see this book again. Granted, this is the first in a series, so I expected it to end with a cliffhanger. But, seriously…that?! What were the rest of the chapters even for?
You can scroll below for the spoiler, but if you’d rather remain surprised, I’ll say this – if you end up not wanting to heave this book across the room, you’re a rare soul indeed. When I got to the last chapter, it was like getting hit in the face with a shovel…
And not in a good way.
Now about that spoiler, in case you’re curious…
Konrad dies. Yep. After all that. That will be a few hours of my life I won’t get back.
Okay, back to the spoiler-free zone.
I agree with one reviewer that this novel seems like Frankenstein fan fiction. The characters are flat and the plot is consistent but has no genuine payoff. Gone are the elements that make Frankenstein such a memorable, conflicted character. Heck, even Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie was better than this.
My final gripe was that I felt the author was trying to preach some sort of anti-Christian/anti-religious sentiments, with Victor representing the agnostic/atheistic view and Elizabeth representing the Christian/religious view. I have nothing against books that address tricky issues or hard-to-answer questions (even Frankenstein does that!), but there is a fine line between discussing these matters and preaching an agenda. Nearly every time Victor and Elizabeth discourse, we get “insights” into why religion is a waste of time, God isn’t real, prayer is useless, etc. Rather than giving both sides equal time, the view that’s played up here is that God has abandoned the world and religious expression (e.g. reading scriptures, praying, attending church, etc.) is futile. There are better ways to bring up these types of discussions and always painting Victor as the victor (no pun this time) in these arguments didn’t sit well with me. It made me sense the author had a beef to pick with religious people and this was the best way he could think to do it.
I will say that I think This Dark Endeavor had promise – it could have been good but not great. Instead, it left me feeling…well…not much of anything. I didn’t figure I’d love it but I at least wanted to like it. Instead, I ended up half-liking it until the end, which sent me into a head-banging tirade.
Again, not in a good way.
Language – Minimal. There may have been a few PG-level profanities present but they were few and far between.
Violence – The novel has a brooding tone that probably won’t appeal to everyone, but it feels like it’s trying too hard (like a kid who wants to be Goth but has no real understanding of what that means so he just dresses up like the Crow). Likewise, there are scenes of violence and peril, including when a character gets a body part (voluntarily) hacked off and someone’s pet is viciously stabbed. The latter was graphic regarding the actual death of the animal and what the attacker finds in the animal. (Because, you know, rummaging through warm intestines is like digging through a box of chocolates – you’ll never know what you’ll get. Or gut, I should say.)
Sexual Material – None. The sexual tension between the members of the love triangle is as flat as warm soda though, once again, Elizabeth is a relative of sorts, so the entire idea of even having a romance between her and the two gents is a bit disturbing.
I guess if you like this sort of quasi-Gothic type of story that, to its merit, has some interesting elements, then you might enjoy it. But it falls into the same traps many YA fiction possesses these days. Fluffy story. Flat characters. Love triangles. Angst. Not to say those things are inherently wrong (except for flat characters) but they just don’t hold much appeal to me. Overall, This Dark Endeavor tries but falls incredibly short as it attempts to recreate the world and characters of Frankenstein. You’re better off reading the original instead.