This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel is scary, which makes it timely as Halloween nears. But it’s scary all year round. As a precursor to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novel’s fear factor arises from the tensions between the characters.
Oppel’s twist on the classic story is the invention of a twin for Victor Frankenstein, Konrad, and they are both in love with Elizabeth Lavenza. That’s one source of tension. Victor wants to be better than Konrad, even though he loves Konrad. That’s another tension. When the twin brothers together with Elizabeth discover a secret passage that leads far beneath the Chateau Frankenstein, and a recipe for an Elixir of Life—that leads to further tensions with Victor and Konrad’s father, who forbids them from returning to the cellar and from reading the books stored there. And then there’s the tension between Victor, the siblings’ friend, Henry, and Elizabeth when they seek help from a troubled, reclusive alchemist.
More classic scary scenes emerge during their search for the Elixir’s ingredients: white-knuckle encounters with the vulture-like Lammergeier, which has a 10-foot wing span, and also a prehistoric coelacanth (their pursuit of the fish through tiny tunnels will make even hearty readers feel claustrophobic). But the true terror arises from Victor and his unpredictability. We watch his inner struggle as he wrestles between his jealousy of and loyalty to his brother, his desire to attract and even possess Elizabeth’s affections, and finally his hunger for power.
At the same time, the world is changing around the 15-year-old twins. The author probes the societal shifts in thinking in late 18th-century Switzerland. Konrad yearns to visit America, the French people have fomented a revolution, and scientific breakthroughs have begun to overshadow Roman Catholicism. When Victor, an atheist, worries that he could lose his brother to illness, he almost envies Elizabeth her devout beliefs. His thoughts as he observes her in the church expose the tug-of-war between fact and faith, in both religion and science: “Wine to blood. Lead to gold. Medicine dripped into my brother’s veins. The transmutation of matter. Was it magic or science? Fantasy or truth?”
Frankenstein still holds our attention, centuries later, for good reason. And Kenneth Oppel’s perfectly sets the stage for the man and the monster to come.