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Sunwing

by Kenneth Oppel

Kenneth Oppel’s first bat fantasy, Silverwing, ends with an explicit sequel teaser: “Within two sunsets he’d be starting on another journey, and maybe the greatest of all.” The book ends there but not the story. In an appended author’s note Oppel writes about his fascination with the lives of bats. In this note he puts himself firmly in the august tradition of realistic animal story, a genre invented by Canadian Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G.D. Roberts, a genre that springs from a naturalist’s curiosity.

In Sunwing, Oppel admirably fulfills his promise of a sequel. The greatest journey of all is the journey of a young bat, Shade, to find his long-lost father. On the course of this journey, other themes and plot strands from the first book are picked up and embroidered. The enmity between bats and owls gets more and more intense. The mysterious “human building” becomes more and more ominous. The function of the metal bands that some bats wear is revealed to be even more complicated than expected. The love interest gets sticky as Chinook becomes Shade’s rival for the affections of Marina. And Goth, the vicious flesh-eating thug bat, arrives back on the scene. By the halfway point, what with live sacrifice, a religious war, evil scientists, bat visionaries, torture, an alliance with the rats, and a sort of existentialist crisis for Shade, things are very knotty indeed. But by book’s end, in a tour de force of clever plotting, all is resolved. A peace accord is achieved between owls and bats, the intent of the evil military scientists to equip bats with explosive devices is revealed and they are vanquished, Shade’s father is found and rescued, and Shade gets the girl. (Did we ever doubt it? Chinook is a hunk but … like … unevolved.)

In plot and characters Sunwing is closely linked to Silverwing but it has a different flavour. Although details of realistic bat life such as echo location still form elements of the plot, the shape of the story is much more that of a roustabout action adventure. The pace is hectic, the villains are dastardly, and the narrative style is that of a series of extremely visual scenes. Oppel has floated free of the conventions of the realistic animal story and invented something new. One influence is certainly that of the animated cartoon. In the final pages there is a scene where the rats and the owls arrive in the hall of sacrifice. “Owls. They exploded through the opening in a thunderclap of feathered wings, and Shade saw Orestes in the forefront, his fierce eyes and beak flashing. Then, from the circular portal, long vines and creepers sprang over the rim, unfurling into the chamber, and running down the length of each, even as it unrolled, was a rat. He saw Cortez among them as they leaped to the walls, the floor, the backs of surprised cannibal bats, sinking their teeth deep.” This is a terrific bit of visual scene-setting. It is the turning point in the action and you can almost hear the swelling background music.

Sunwing also exhibits a very different set of values from the earlier animal adventures. In Seton and Roberts the lone wolf was a lone wolf, and nobility lay in a stiff upper lip, few words, and blood in the snow. Shade is a hero and he exhibits the heroic values of bravery, loyalty, and toughness, but the real heroism lies in community and co-operation. Bats are communal animals and even the rebel must act in concert to succeed. The alliance between bats, rats, and owls is essential to their survival. This could be corny, but it isn’t. Is consensus incompatible with grandeur? Not in the world of Shade and his fellows. Shade is also a talker, full of chat and repartee, and given to such bat colloquialisms as “now that really spiked his fur up.”

Will there be a third bat volume? The neatly knitted-in conclusion suggests not. Shade is now going to settle down with Marina in Tree Haven and probably grow to a garrulous old age, telling his stories to the echo chamber where they will live for generations. Short of drawing room comedy, it is hard to see where Oppel could go. On the other hand, nowhere in the action-packed end of Sunwing does it ever say conclusively that Goth is dead. True, he got blown up, but readers of the earlier volume, in which Goth survived being fried by lightning, will know not to trust that. And I would quite like to see more of him. He seemed to be taking on the identity of a fundamentalist fanatic in his final scenes, and this suggests a possibility of political satire, which is another whole animal story tradition to investigate.

Sunwing is a book of big effects, and if someone had told me in advance that I would enjoy a book that contained the line “You stopped me from killing the sun, but I will still eat your beating heart,” I would have been dubious. (You can almost hear the Transylvanian accent.) But I’m a convert. And, of course, most of the potential readers will need no conversion to a world of the royal family Vampyrum Spectrum and the rapacious god Zotz. This book is a natural for the on-screen generation.