I am convinced that Ken Oppel is required by contract to have at least one weird creature in his books. We’ve had flying cats, lonely bats, and maybe even mutated rats (that last one I may be wrong on, but it rhymes, so I’m keeping it).
In This Dark Endeavor, though, the creatures are real. Some are rare, but they still exist. That’s what I love most about the book. Yes, it’s a prequel to Frankenstein and it’s all about alchemy, but the chemistry and the biology stay pretty realistic.
Victor Frankenstein, creator of the famous monster, is the protagonist and the narrator. What is interesting is that Victor is deeply brooding – which, little known fact, is also a requirement by contract for YA characters. Oppel does a good job setting up the man who will try to conquer death itself through science. I guess that’s part of the trend of the “when they were young” books that are coming out; we get to see the origins of well-known characters.
The downside of that trend, though, is that those books sometimes rely too heavily on prior knowledge from the original source. While I benefited from having read the original Frankenstein, students that have read only This Dark Endeavor were still able to understand and appreciate what was going on. In fact, some went on to check out the original.
Having a semi-villain for a protagonist makes for an interesting romance. Normally, you cheer for the hero to win their love, but this time he’s trying to steal from his brother, we know he’s making things worse, and can’t quite endorse what he’s doing. It’s definitely not your normally love story.
Oppel succeeds in making the Frankensteins seem like a real family from history and the characters are the backbone of the story. Students who like adventure stories and won’t be daunted by an 18th-century setting will enjoy it.