Friday, October 21, 2011

11. This Dark Endeavor

Written by Kenneth Oppel
$17.99, ages 12 and up, 304 pages

When twin brother Konrad falls ill, 15-year-old Victor scrambles to find an elixir of life to save him and awakens his obsession for alchemy, in this grim and marvelous take on Frankenstein's youth.

Victor, born just minutes after Konrad, has always felt inferior to him, in schoolwork even sword play, but now Konrad is sick and doctors are bleeding him pale with leeches. As Konrad sees it, it's up to him to save Konrad, and to do that he must turn to darker means. 

Against his father's wishes, Victor, his cousin Elizabeth and their friend Henry sneak into a forbidden lab deep beneath the Frankenstein castle for answers, and discover a book of ancient spells with a cryptic recipe for eternal life.

When they initially discover the lab, after accidentally dislodging books in Father's study, Konrad is still well, and Father has warned them never to go down there again. But Victor can't shake his fascination with what he sees.

There are oddly-shaped glassware, metal instruments and shelves groaning with ancient books in Latin, Greek and languages they've never seen. Normally books held little interest for Victor, but these have "dark luster," titles about the occult and pictures of gruesome bodies. 

Until Konrad's illness, Victor has no reason to return. But now with doctors baffled about how to cure Konrad, Victor decides he has no other choice but to defy his father. Spurred by his own impulsive nature, he convinces Elizabeth and Henry to help him search the underground chamber for a cure.

There on a shelf, the three find a book with the elixir, but it's written in a bizarre language, the Alphabet of the Magi, and searching further, they find a charred translation of the alphabet by Paracelsus. Realizing they cannot decipher the recipe, they set off in search of a translator, an alchemist named Julius Polidori.

Polidori, who is bound to a wheelchair and lives with an eerie pet lynx, reluctantly agrees to help and using mysterious surgical means, repairs enough of Paracelsus's volume to translate the recipe, one ingredient at a time. Just three ingredients are needed, but they are strange and difficult to attain.

As Konrad shifts between illness and remission, only to succumb to sickness again, the three set off on a dark, chilling quest fraught with peril. Along the way, Victor and Elizabeth fend off vicious vultures and see their vision transformed into that of a wolf's, and with Konrad's help during a remission, spelunk into the far reaches of a cave to face a ferocious watery beast.

Time is ticking, as Konrad's illness advances; they face impossible odds, an unfathomable sacrifice and a bitter love triangle that will put them all to the test. But is the potion they seek what Konrad really needs? And why is the reclusive Polidori so willing to help them, when dabbling in the occult could entangle him with the law?

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