This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel
Kenneth Oppel takes Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and looks into his adolescence for clues to the man he became. In Oppel’s telling, young Victor lives in a centuries-old fortress in Geneva with his parents, his identical twin brother, Konrad, and his beautiful cousin Elizabeth. Konrad is easy for everyone to love; Victor has a more complicated personality—competitive, brooding and rebellious. Konrad falls ill and a series of nineteenth century doctors try to cure him. In this time period, medicine and science are on a cusp, turning from alchemy and magic into sound logic and method. It is not at all clear that even the most modern doctor will cure Konrad and Victor wants to turn to the older ways and be the one to bring his brother back to health.
To do this he lies to his parents, seeks out forbidden contacts, and put himself Konrad, and Elizabeth in serious danger. Herein lies the action of the story—the perilous ventures, the near escapes, the blood and gore. But Victor is not completely in this for his love for his brother. He wants glory; he wants to be more powerful than his parents and the doctors. And most of all, he wants Elizabeth to love him and not his brother. Action does abound in this story, but the torque of psychological angst never lags behind.
Kenneth Oppel is a master craftsman of the young teen novel. He knows how to give the young reader’s mind exactly what it wants and then dole out a whole lot more: to be swept up in the thrill of adventure, to recognize oneself often, and then to be challenged to do something particularly delicious—to think deeply…
While much of Oppel’s earlier books appeal to upper elementary and middle school readers of both genders, this novel will appeal to readers of both genders from middle school on into high school. Like all of his work, this book will also be loved just as much by adults as by their kids.
Star Crossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce
This is Elizabeth Bunce’s second novel and the first in a new series. I loved her first book, A Curse Dark As Gold, an intriguing interpretation of the Rumplestiltskin folktale, and I eagerly looked forward to her next book. A genre, fantasy series, usually less favored by me, Star Crossed nevertheless delivers on many of the same levels: a strong, resourceful, true-hearted heroine; a diverse cast of interesting characters; vivid description; and the entertainment of life’s deeper questions.
Set in a fantasy world that atmospherically parallels eastern Europe in the late middle ages, this tale is narrated by a girl who has had to make her way into a hostile world at a very young age. She is on a singular mission—to stay alive. She becomes a very good thief, forger, and spy. But a near brush with death from a failed caper at the beginning of the story propels her into a mountain castle. Here she will sit out a snowbound winter with a cast of characters at the center of a budding rebellion.
Celyn, as she calls herself, is afraid of nothing. She uses her talents to find out everything there is to know about the castle and its inhabitants, slowly flushing all mysteries into the light. The reader comes along on her journey, flinching at her every daring move, as each of the characters slowly but inevitably reveals the clarity of their position in the central conflict.
Celyn is tough, resilient, and clever; she knows and protects good whenever she sees it. Readers of all ages who have enjoyed the Bloody Jack books will also like this book. The plot is tightly wovern and requires the reader to pay attention and work things out, but there is nothing inappropriate for the youngest of accomplished readers.
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
A good part of being a teenager is the uncovering of mysteries about one’s own self. Lucy has more of a task with this than most teenagers since she is the target of an ancient curse, one based on the song Scarborough Fair. In a contemporary teen setting, Lucy must first discover the nature of a curse that threatens to irrevocably determine an unacceptable fate. Then, with the help of foster parents and a loving boyfriend (as well as the modern advantage of technology) she must try to break the curse.
A little of the supernatural really makes this story of strength, courage, and love sparkle. The obstacles are powerful, the drive for resolution is intense, the strength of love is thrilling. Teenage girls in my eighth and ninth grade classes last year were thrilled with this book. While there is some violence and moderately inexplicit sex, including a slightly surreal rape scene, the overriding theme is the power of love and resolve in overcoming adversity.
A Curse As Dark As Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
In a tight spot, in an end of the road absolutely everything will be lost tight spot, who among us would not turn to the supernatural for help, even at an extreme cost? And if it works, would we not turn to it again if misfortune pushed us again to the wall? This is such a common experience it is no wonder it is a theme of stories in many cultures over the centuries. In the story of Rumplestiltskin, a miller’s daughter must spin straw into gold or her father will die. Talk about a tight spot. But a little man appears and spins the straw into gold for her. He asks for a necklace at first but eventually it is her child he wants. She saves the child by finding out the little man’s true name.
Elizabeth Bunce has taken the hapless miller’s daughter and made her into a real force. Strong, sensible Charlotte takes over the mill when her father dies and throws herself into the impossible challenge of overcoming adversity on every side. When all her options vanish, she turns to the mysterious little man who can spin straw into gold. But it is not only his name she must discover to save everything she holds dear; she must use all her courage to discover where her forebearers went wrong and she must make it right.
This is storytelling at its best and a wonderfully rich version of a very old tale. The spells, the magic, and the curse from the dead are skillfully woven into a warmly realistic tale of millers of cloth in the years before the Industrial transformation. As I was reading this book, I heard mysterious noises in my house differently and experienced fleeting moments where I thought I might be in the presence of spirits. No wonder I liked fairy tales so much when I was a child. They break open thin windows onto alternate worlds.
Girls from age ten to ninetly will love this book. It is an advanced read for younger girls and though fairly scarey, has nothing that would be inappropriate for younger readers.
The Naming, by Alison Croggon
Presented as a translation of an ancient legend, The Naming is epic fantasy at its most classic. The Dark (working for what someone else forces you to do) threatens to extinguish the Light (working for what you hope for and believe in the depths of your heart) in the ancient civilization of Edil-Amarandh. Cadvan, a magically gifted Bard, believes that sixteen-year-old Maedra is the One who is Foretold to defeat the Dark. He finds her living wretchedly as a slave nine years after she survived the destruction of her home of Pellinor.
Eager to leave her life of slavery, Maedra and Cadvan embark on a long and dangerous journey during which she confronts enemies and realizes her special gifts. On this journey, Maedra finds her little brother, Hem, who she thought had been killed. They must separate at the end of The Naming, as Maedra continues her quest in The Riddle. Hem’s story is taken up again in the third book, The Crow. In the last book, The Singing, brother and sister are reunited for a final effort against the growing power of the Dark.
The edge of danger never lags in this series and the evil ones are plenty scary. The characters are complex and the line between the Light and the Dark is often blurred. Maedra is strong-willed, intelligent, kind, brave, and temperamental. Because of the strength of her character, this series has been well-liked by the middle and high school girls in my classes, but boys who are avid fans of fantasy have also liked it. The protagonist is a teenager and as such there are some themes of romance and maturing development, but these are more implicit than explicit. Though this series has been compared to The Lord of the Rings, I think it is a slightly easier read and could be appreciated by younger, experienced readers also.
Sacred Scars, by Kathleen Duey
The second book in this trilogy continues the story of wizardry and time warp begun in the first book Skin Hunger (see March 17 review). This is a woven story with the warp being told from the perspective of a girl and the weft being told from the perspective of a boy. In Skin Hunger,their stories are separated by a great span of time, but they both are under the power of the same sadistic, twisted wizard, Soumiss. Soumiss exists in both stories since he has the secret of long life. In Sacred Scars, the time span between the two stories narrows. The book ends with an implicit promise that the two strands will merge in the third book.
Mystery and the constant threat of danger propel this story along at a pleasing pace. In this second volume, the conflict between the abuse of power and the capacity for kindness solidifies. While suffering permeates almost every chapter, it is continually tempered by slivers of tenderness and loyalty. Romance exists but remains primarily on a spiritual plane.
Fans of the first book will be pleased with this one. However, being the second in a trilogy, there is a sense of inertia: the first volume developed the characters but resolution can not come to them until the final book. The anticipation set up in Skin Hunger will have to wait one more volume for satisfaction.
Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey
When my students bring back books I have lent them, I can tell how good a book is by the expressions on their faces. Every one who has borrowed this book has come back looking very happy and has had the same question, “When is the sequel coming out?”
Skin Hunger is two stories told in alternate chapters separated in time but united in plot. It is as complicated as it sounds, but it is magically executed. What the characters strive for in the earlier time has been fully realized in the later time; what feels ominous but hopeful in the earlier time darkens greatly in the later time. The fear-inspiring unknown unites the two. The effect is deliciously thought- provoking. The resolutions of both stories lean ever more closely towards each other as the novel progresses. That connection appears imminent as the last chapter ends. It is no wonder my students breathlessly ask for the next book. I can hardly wait myself.
High school students and avid middle school readers love this book. There is romance, cruelty, villainry, magic, and sorrow. While I found nothing inappropriate in this book, the themes are mature – the abuse of power, the elusiveness of compassion – and the plot is complex. However, the depth of the two main characters – Sadima in the earlier time period and Hahp in the later – make the complex plot easier to follow. This is a book for teenagers that their parents and teachers can enjoy reading.