Reviewed: August 2, 2006
By: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: HarperTrophy Canada
322 pages, $15.99
Much as I enjoy a good pun, I must
admit that I missed the one in Airborn's title until I was halfway
through the book and finally happened to notice the spelling.
After all, a book dealing with the
adventures of a young man who is part of the crew on a large airship could
easily be called Airborne, right? Except that it isn't; it's called
Airborn, and that has to do with the fact that Matt Cruse was quite
literally born to be in the air.
Perhaps it's because he wants so badly
to follow in the footsteps of his late father, who worked and eventually died
while serving on the Aurora. Perhaps it's because he feels the need to support
his family - and at the same time to get away from them.
Whatever the case, Matt really only
feels comfortable when he is airborne - can't even sleep well when he isn't.
Matt is a cabin boy on the Aurora,
a 900 foot luxury airship that sails the skies in a world that is a bit sideways
from ours. Matt's ship sails across an ocean called the Pacificus, out of
a place called Lionsgate City, in an age which is a bit like the pseudo-Victorian
era familiar to those who have seen the movie The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen. What if the gentler spirit of the Victorian Age had never quite
been broken by the Great War? What if there were a non-explosive lighter than
air gas called hydrium to lift the ships without the danger of them becoming
vast fireballs? If those things were true, might not the whole history of
air travel be different? Still faster than travel by sea, but more like a
luxury liner in terms of time, facilities and style.
When the story begins, Matt is instrumental
in the airborne rescue of Benjamin Molloy, a solitary balloonist who had flown
too high, too long and had had balloon trouble enough to injure him beyond
Matt had no idea then that he would
meet Molloy's granddaughter, the wealthy Kate de Vries, just a year later
on an ill-fated cruise to Australia. He had no idea that they would be attacked
by air pirates, be stranded on an island, find the strange creatures Molloy
had been mumbling about when he died, and have all sorts of other adventures.
Nor would he have thought that a poor cabin boy with ambitions to rise in
the merchant service could have anything in common with an upper class girl
Airborn is as delightful novel that
smacks of old time adventure stories, but updates the form so that it avoids
the pitfalls of the genre. Matt faces trials in his quest to further his career,
but he is a lad who works with what he has and does his best to overcome the
obstacles in his way. He's a realistic protagonist without either arrogance
or false modesty.
Kate is equally important to the development
of the story. She's a clever, ambitious young woman, out to make her mark
in the world of science, where females are not welcome, determined to prove
that her grandfather was not a crazy old man whose obsessions cost him his
Many of the other characters in the
book are stock, but Oppel's take on the pirates, especially Captain Szpirglas,
who is the scourge of the seas - er ... airways - and as brutal as they come,
while being a devoted family man at the same time, is quite effective.
Oppel was previously best know for
his Silverwing Trilogy, the animal fantasy quest tale about bats. It would
be safe to say that Matt's adventures share only a love of flying and a well
plotted, engaging adventure with those earlier novels.
Airborn has been massively successful, earning
him a Governor General's Award. There is already a sequel, Skybreaker,
and I read in a recent interview that he has a third book in mind. I'm looking
forward to them.
In June, as it happens, Oppel was the
first winner of the Children’s Author of the Year Award, a new honour recently
created by the Canadian Bookseller’s Association.