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by Kenneth Oppel

From the soaring success of his Silverwing trilogy, Ken Oppel takes his readers even higher in the skies. His new novel, Airborn, is an accomplished shift from animal fantasy to an imaginary historical past, one that bears a distinct resemblance to the late 19th century. It is the era of the great airships – from a bat’s point of view, surely the golden age of human evolution – when technology first allowed clay-footed humankind (or at least those members of it rich and privileged enough to buy passage) to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Airborn is not for the acrophobic. Fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the luxury airship Aurora, is more comfortable 800 feet above the earth than on solid ground. His surefooted aerial manoeuvres are enough to give most readers chronically sweaty palms. Yet we soon feel thoroughly anchored in this oddly familiar world. The position of cabin boy on an airship seems much like that of cabin boy on a sea-going ship. Matt knows and loves every inch of the Aurora, the same ship from which his father dropped to his death. Despite the sadness of this association, it is where Matt feels least burdened by the loss, living the life his father wanted.

As the ship crosses the great Pacificus bound for Lionsgate City, the watchful Matt sights an eerie object in their path: a battered hot air balloon, adrift, its sole passenger unconscious. The dying passenger’s notebook is filled with extraordinary drawings of bizarre winged creatures, half bat, half panther. Are these animals real, or merely products of a fevered imagination? By now Oppel has set the scene for a tautly paced adventure, solidly built around character. Matt’s passion for flying drives the book.

Oppel’s move to older readers (12 to 15 years old) is a first for the Toronto-based writer, whose career began at the tender age of 17 with Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, published in 1985. Since then, Oppel has written 19 books for young and middle readers, as well as an adult mystery, The Devil’s Cure. The enormously successful Silverwing trilogy – which garnered him a sheaf of prizes including the Mr. Christie’s Book Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, and the CLA Book of the Year for Children – is the basis of an animated series currently airing on the Teletoon network.

Like the Silverwing books, Airborn provides an opportunity for Oppel to work together a rich lode of research. For this reason alone the book is a wonderful resource for teachers, as the basis of a treasure hunt to sort real from imaginary, or an introduction to the wonderful literature of lost worlds. Oppel romps through the territories of Jules Verne and W.H. Hudson, throwing in some of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and The Admirable Crichton for good measure. The result is a vividly imagined, lushly evoked simulacrum of the past. Technology and scientific discovery are advancing side by side, shaking Western culture at its foundations. Bright young women rush into the breach, demanding freedoms and education. Exceptional young men like Matt manage to rise through rigid hierarchies on their ability rather than social pedigree, though not without setbacks and disappointments.

As Aurora heads southward again on a new voyage, among her passengers is Kate de Vries, the heir of the dead balloonist that Matt had discovered. Unable to accompany her beloved grandfather on his last voyage, she is determined to validate and claim his scientific legacy: the discovery of the fabulous flying mammals whose existence has hitherto gone unrecorded. A bond soon grows between Kate and Matt, despite social differences. Matt knows very well that a cabin boy has no business speaking as an equal to a rich young female passenger. Yet his decency and good sense make a good match for Kate’s headstrong drive. Both young people are self-reliant out of necessity, since Matt is fatherless and Kate is neglected by her parents. Together they face some knotty moral issues.

Before Kate can prove the existence of her grandfather’s sky cats, enter stage left airship pirates, the violent predators of capitalism. They strip the rich passengers of valuables and leave the Aurora mortally wounded to founder on an uncharted island. For Kate this disaster is a piece of good fortune: surely this is the very island where her grandfather made his sightings. She plunges into the bush, dragging a reluctant Matt behind. Oppel creates powerful tension between the double threats of human evil in the form of the pirates and the forces of nature that are red in tooth and claw. The situation becomes deadly serious and truly frightening when the darkness in human hearts meets the wildest of beasts in a stunning showdown.

At 322 pages, Airborn is substantial, but that will hardly daunt readers whose wrist muscles and page-turning fingers have survived the latest Harry Potter. The action is at times heart-stopping, the dialogue lively and convincing. Oppel’s images take lasting root in our memories: a furiously pugnacious little red snake, for example, or a spectral skeleton stretched in death along a tree limb. The airship is meticulously evoked, its crew vividly sketched. Only the wealthy passengers have oddly little solid presence, except in times of crisis. We don’t hear their laughter and clinking glasses, don’t see their glossy furs and glittering jewels. However, the omission is understandable since Matt likely sees them as just ballast on his personal journey.

Sometimes it feels as if things work out a little too neatly, as when Matt discovers that the hissing noise deep in an island cave is made by the leaking of the very gas needed to reinflate the Aurora. But then we must remind ourselves that this is fantasy, after all… and as the Swiss Family Robinson would attest, often that’s just the way it happens on a desert island.