I suppose it would be considered sacrilege among the literary community to bash a treasured classic novel — but since I’ve already spoken publicly about my disdain for such beloved novels as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, it probably won’t matter that I publicly disclose the following: despite studying it in numerous classes throughout high school and college, I think Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a pretty awful book.
That said, I think Shelley could have learned a thing or two from Kenneth Oppel and his brilliantly imagined prequel to Frankenstein, This Dark Endeavor.
In fact, I enjoyed Oppel’s prequel so much, it had me scrabbling for my old dog-eared copy of Frankenstein and flipping through the pages to look up various references he makes to the original text throughout This Dark Endeavor. That alone should speak to how imaginative and clever Oppel’s prequel is — that it got me to willingly reopen my copy of Frankenstein.
The book tells the story of a young Victor Frankenstein and his twin brother Konrad. Along with their friends Henry and Elizabeth, they stumble upon the Dark Library — filled with books of alchemy and mysterious ancient remedies. Their father forbids them from returning to the room, but when Konrad becomes ill with a serious and unknown illness, Victor’s willing to do whatever it takes. With Henry and Elizabeth at his side, he ventures back to the Dark Library to find a recipe for the Elixir of Life — a formula that he hopes will save Konrad’s life, if only he can collect the three rare ingredients in time.
This Dark Endeavor is creepy and atmospheric, and feels like a natural precursor to Frankenstein. In fact, it’s easy to see the developing characteristics in young Victor that will come to define him in Shelley’s enduring tale. Oppel has clearly done his homework, and it shows in the best possible way. His writing even feels like it fits in the time period when Shelley wrote, while still moving forward at a pace and style friendly to contemporary readers.
Yet This Dark Endeavor excels far beyond Frankenstein by focusing more on plot and character development in a way Shelley’s original did not, which was more about social commentary than real horror. This Dark Endeavor is filled with plot goodies to keep you eagerly turning the pages, from the quest for Konrad’s cure to a dangerous and unrequited romance with major implications for Victor’s future. It all peaks with a climax that is truly climactic in every sense.
And while I’m admittedly not a fan of the original, I was delighted every time I spotted Oppel’s little nods and tributes to Shelley’s original text. It’s also worthwhile to take another look at Frankenstein after reading This Dark Endeavor to see how the newly imagined prequel fits in with the original canon.
This Dark Endeavor is in stores now.