I love Kenneth Oppel. Well, at least I love his books. His Airborn series was one of the best middle grade series I have ever read. The only reason why I did not read his bat series is because a personal disinclination towards talking animals (unless it is Manchee from the Knife of Never Letting Go. Poo Todd! Poo. Squirrel, Todd), but I hear it is fabulous.
So imagine my excitement when I discovered he wrote a book riffing on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! Oppel. Historical fiction. Old-fashioned 18th century Gothic horror. I. am. so. there.
As usual, Mr. Oppel does not disappoint. The Frankensteins live an idyllic life. They are well off, having a country house in the countryside outside of Geneva as well as a townhouse. Victor and his twin brother Konrad are very close to each other as well as their cousin, the beautiful and spunky Elisabeth. But the picturesque scene crumbles when Konrad falls ill. Victor turns to the alchemical secrets in a hidden chamber, secrets his father does not want him to investigate in order to find a cure for the wasting disease afflicting his brother.
Oppel does a brilliant job of telling a story from the perspective of the villain. And as villains go, Victor is complicated, nuanced and arrives at his villainy not through bad intentions but through a twisted desire to do good. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Add a heart-breaking love triangle, shady alchemists, rare cave-dwelling fish as big as small whales and you’ve got yourself a fine tale to wile away a winter’s eve.
I am doing some homework in terms of my own writing these days, and am thinking a lot about scene. How they need to be tight. How they have their own story arcs, with beginning, middle and ends. How nothing can be superfluous. Oppel sets his scenes brilliantly- in fact the first scene of the book is genius. The reader is immediately drawn into the story by the first sentence: “We found the monster on a rocky ledge high above the lake.” Then a few pages comes the unexpected twist. The reader then thinks the surprise is over, lets their shoulders down, takes a breath, only to be thrust right back into the tension. The first scene also serves as a wonderful foreshadowing for Victor’s journey into the dark side of alchemy. Oppel is indeed a master craftsman- I am looking forward to reading the sequel, which is now waiting for me on my desk!