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Such Wicked Intent: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book Two

Review

Such Wicked Intent: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book Two

When the Elixir of Life --- for which 16-year-old Victor Frankenstein risked his life and sacrificed two fingers --- fails to save his twin brother Konrad, Victor burns the Dark Library that first tempted him to try alchemy. But one volume survives the blaze. A metal case containing instruments with which to speak to the dead proves irresistible to the grief-stricken Victor. Determined to resurrect his brother, Victor traverses the boundaries between the living and the dead in SUCH WICKED INTENT, book two in Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein.

First begun in THIS DARK ENDEAVOR, Oppel’s series fleshes out Victor Frankenstein’s youth before he creates the famed monster from Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. The first volume in the series features action-packed adventure along with occult terrors as Victor, his friend Henry, and his brother’s fiancée Elizabeth seek the ingredients with which to make the Elixir of Life. When the elixir fails to save Victor’s twin Konrad, Victor is wracked with guilt. He wonders if the elixir failed, or if it hastened Konrad’s end.

"As a fan of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, I love Oppel’s incorporation of some of her diaries and her history in THIS DARK ENDEAVOR.... SUCH WICKED INTENT also has some nods to classic literature, including fragments of poetry from Lord Byron and Lord Alfred Tennyson, peppering its pages."

Implicit to the ending of THIS DARK ENDEAVOR is a sense of the futility of occult knowledge, which endangers the lives of the protagonists without fulfilling its promise of a cure. Elizabeth attempts to comfort the grieving Victor with religion at the end of the first book. “We need no elixir to live forever,” she tells him. “[God] made us immortal, and Konrad is not gone.” These words haunt the second book when Victor --- following a series of clues left by a notorious alchemist who once inhabited the chateau --- discovers a secret chamber containing a potion and carrying a “spirit clock” animated by the skeleton of a dead bird. Using these items, Victor can travel to the world of the dead where he finds Konrad’s spirit still haunting the chateau.

Excited by this discovery, Elizabeth is convinced that it proves the existence of God. “If there is a world beyond our own, a life after death, that means there is also a God,” she says. But the mysterious forces they find in this otherworld do not speak to a benevolent creator. Instead, a dense fog shrouds the chateau in mystery, while an ancient force seems to be waking from deep beneath the chateau’s foundations. The three friends’ sojourn to the land of the dead --- while first marked with the joy of being reunited with Konrad’s spirit --- quickly takes a more sinister turn.

Guided by ancient carvings he finds in caves beneath the chateau, Victor attempts to create a vessel for Konrad’s spirit in the world of the living using clay, a bit of hair from Konrad’s hairbrush, and one of the spirit butterflies that follows him back from the land of the dead. But there is something not quite right about this creature that looks like Konrad, but acts on the basest forms of instinct. As the malevolent force that sleeps beneath the chateau begins to stir, Victor starts to question what forces his experimentation has unleashed.

As a fan of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, I love Oppel’s incorporation of some of her diaries and her history in THIS DARK ENDEAVOR. The first book is very true to FRANKENSTEIN and its questions about the limits of knowledge and what forces are capable of creating, sustaining, or extinguishing life. SUCH WICKED INTENT also has some nods to classic literature, including fragments of poetry from Lord Byron and Lord Alfred Tennyson, peppering its pages. But where THIS DARK ENDEAVOR left some ambiguity about whether or not the dark arts exist, SUCH WICKED INTENT --- unless it is a dream or a mass hallucination --- falls fully on the side of the occult.

I will admit that this wholesale embrace of the occult with its potions, a homunculus and a spirit world in which the characters commune with the dead --- while making for a ripping read --- disturbed me. One of the things that makes Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN a masterpiece is that it is a cautionary tale about science rather than magic. While an argument could be made that the origins of science can be found in occult knowledge --- alchemy sired chemistry, while astrology was a predecessor to astronomy --- the carefully crafted ambiguity of the first book is lost once it’s established that supernatural forces actually exist, even if the drug-induced spiritual vision experiences with his friends are in line with the company Shelley kept.

At the end of the book, while packing for a journey, Victor comes across a notebook kept while under the influence of the spirit world:“There were some passages I was simply unable to read, and those I could read didn’t make a lot of sense to me. There seemed to be information not just about turning lead into gold, but about many other things too, including the mysteries of the human body. Numbers and notations and equations that might as well have been the hieroglyphs of a lost civilization…. Nothing good had come out of the spirit world with me. Nothing.”

And yet, rather than burning the pages, he saves them: “What if the knowledge was real but I wasn’t clever enough yet to understand it?” Victor asks.

SUCH WICKED INTENT ends with an image from Shelley’s book: an oak hit by lightning captures Victor’s reckless curiosity. “Electricity,” his father tells him, “A discharge of energy between oppositely charged particles. It’s a relatively new science, a potent and promising one.” And with that promise, Victor’s quest to reanimate the dead is ignited once again.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on August 21, 2012

Such Wicked Intent: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book Two
by Kenneth Oppel