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Starclimber

by Kenneth Oppel

In the ripping fantasy yarns Airborn and Skybreaker, Kenneth Oppel took readers to the skies. In the third book of the trilogy, Starclimber, we head for the heavens, with Canada racing to be the first nation to reach outer space.

Series protagonists Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries want to be part of this historic mission, but face serious challenges – from protestors (the Babelites, a group willing to kill to stop the exploration of space), meddling parents, and most insidiously, themselves.

Kate is invited on board for her expertise in aerial zoology, but her rich family wants her to give up science for society. In a gruelling competition to become one of the ship’s three “astralnauts,” Matt must face physical and mental fears. More vexingly, these two lovebirds must hide their romance, a performance that makes Matt think he will lose Kate forever. To Oppel’s significant credit, he makes this love story an integral aspect of the novel without slowing the action or alienating mush-averse readers. They will be far too enraptured by this gripping tale, which delivers fast-paced fantasy and rich psychological drama.

Oppel once again succeeds in creating a world both familiar and fantastic, with thinly veiled borrowings from real places (Vancouver is recast as “Lionsgate”) and people (Emily Carr becomes “Evelyn Karr”) that anchor the flights of fancy. While the latter will tickle readers’ imaginations, they become almost secondary concerns in this character-driven series. The protagonists’ experiences of social injustices – based on class for Matt and gender for Kate – not only set up plot points but also add to the text’s philosophical meatiness, making it much more than a simple adventure story. Even as they explore the natural world, Oppel’s satisfyingly complex characters examine what it means to be human.