Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's alive!

I've pretty much enjoyed everything I've read from Kenneth Oppel, although I've only listened to this one. In spite of this, I didn't have much interest in his latest novel, This Dark Endeavor [or Endeavour if you're Canadian]: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein. But when I saw that the narrator was Luke Daniels -- whose reading of Days of Little Texas I really, really liked -- I thought I'd give it a listen. I enjoyed this -- mostly for its Easter-eggy in-jokes about Mary Shelley's book and other related media -- but I don't think it needs to be a series (which I understand it will be). The origins of Victor Frankenstein are made very clear here.

Konrad and Victor Frankenstein are the identical twin sons of a wealthy and enlightened couple living in an old castle near Geneva, Switzerland. Two younger boys and a distant cousin named Elizabeth Lavenza round out the happy family. Exploring the castle one day, the twins and Elizabeth discover a fake bookcase and a secret stairway into a decaying old library. When Frankenstein père discovers them there, he forbids them to enter it again. Soon after, Konrad falls mysteriously ill and after many physicians (including a Dr. Murnau) try and fail to cure him, one of the family's maids urges Victor to find a Mr. Polidori (who lives in Wollstonecraft Alley), once an alchemist, but now all but banished from Geneva. Polidori convinces Victor and Elizabeth that he can recreate the Elixir of Life, which may save Konrad's life. There are just three ingredients, all extremely dangerous to obtain (do not do too much exploring of the author's website if you don't want exposure to spoilers!).

While Victor, Elizabeth and their friend Henry Clerval (all three of these characters appear in Shelley's novel) seek the ingredients, Victor grows obsessed -- with saving Konrad, with loving Elizabeth (who loves Konrad), with concoctions that can improve humans, with the tantalizing books in his father's dark library. As a result, for a novel's protagonist, he's not a particularly appealing character. And because Victor hasn't yet created that most sympathetic of characters, his Monster, there's really no one in this novel to care about.

Sure, there are some very exciting bits -- climbing to the topmost branches of a fir tree in the midst of a windstorm in search of some special lichen [digression (so I don't forget): I just heard Alan Cumming pronounce this word "LIE-shen" while listening to Goliath], spelunking to the depths of Lake Geneva's caves for the all-but-extinct coelacanth, and a frantic escape from a character who is up to no good are all breathless and highly entertaining. But there's no heart at the center of this story.

Narrator Luke Daniels tries very hard to find that non-existent heart. This book does not have the razzmatazz narrator opportunity that Little Texas did, but Daniels still does a very good job. He's comfortable with the more formal dialogue Oppel uses to place the novel firmly in the late 18th/early 19th century. He creates slightly different voices for the twins -- Konrad is quieter and more subdued while Victor sounds impetuous and commanding. Daniels has a resonant voice that he uses to great effect, and when some adults reveal themselves to be more than a bit evil, their voices can bring you bolt upright. At the same time, Daniels can voice women in a natural way -- they sound girlish without being swishy.

Daniels shines in the action sequences, nicely building tension with volume and pacing. I am the tiniest bit claustrophobic and I got squirmy when our heroes were down in that cave with the rising water. And when the novel takes a turn to tragedy, the characters' grief is clear in his narration.

Is this a book you can only appreciate if you have some familiarity with the original material? I read it a really long time ago, but earlier this year I watched a fantastic theatrical production via the NT Live program, so the details were fairly fresh. According to the women who are hosting the new Printz blog, it is clear that Oppel took a great deal of care to make all sorts of connections to his source. Once again as I try futile-ly to enter a teenager's mind, would this book prompt a reader to seek out Mary Shelley? Or vice versa?

[You can see how a coelacanth could have swallowed Victor's arm from this photograph from Tokyo Sea Life Park. It was taken by OpenCage and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[As for the guy on the right, I doubt an introduction is needed (and it has nothing to do with this novel, but occasionally resistance is futile). It's a public-domain still from The Bride of Frankenstein and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Narrated by Luke Daniels
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 8:02

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