While Kenneth Oppel may be known for his brisk plots and inventive premises, he reveals himself as a modern-day Farley Mowat in his latest effort, an all-Canadian thriller set in the late 18oos against the rise of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Will Everett is along for a cross-country ride with his engineer father on the Boundless, the longest and largest train ever built. At a station stop, Will witnesses a murder and finds himself separated from his father – and the safety of first class – by more than 11 kilometres of train cars. His only hope for survival involves teaming up with Maren, a feisty tightrope walker, and Mr. Dorian, a mysterious circus ringmaster who is fascinated by a strange painting.
While the action on the train could easily fuel the story, Oppel also digs into an irresistible treasure trove of folklore pulled from the passing geography. The landscape poses a threat equal to or greater than the dangers on the train: villains inhabit desolate locales, sasquatches emerge from avalanches, bog hags dwell in muskeg swamps.
Oppel borrows equally from the thrilling and disturbing parts of Canadian history for his titanic tale. Along with the heady rush of invention, the harsh treatment of Chinese railroad workers, the disruption of indigenous territory, and the pervasive racial prejudice of the time are all given attention, making this story much more nuanced than a thrill ride through beaver territory. Readers should be cautioned that, though never gratuitously violent, this is a mature middle-grade read with a higher body count (including a decapitation) than most Oppel novels.
Books often feel too curricular when authors try to weave Canadian history into the narrative, but Oppel skilfully balances lesson and legend. Steeped in Canadiana and suspense, The Boundless reads like a blood-speckled love letter to the late 19th century in the True North strong and free.