Kenneth Oppel,
(HarperCollins, 2004)

Kenneth Oppel has emerged as one of the genuine stars of the Canadian YA literary scene. After his series of bat books -- Firewing, Sunwing and Silverwing -- met with stunning success with the tween set, the question was what would he attempt for an encore. The answer is Airborn, a Victorian period, alternate-Earth story filled with adventure, intrigue and just the right degree of romance.

Airborn takes place in a world in which lighter-than-air craft have come to dominate air travel. There's been no Hindenberg disaster because these craft aren't filled with hydrogen but with an even lighter, much safer element called hydrium. Matt Cruse, the hero of this adventure, is cabin boy for the Lunardi Line's luxury airship Aurora. He's following in his father's footsteps and hopes one day to achieve even greater things by becoming a pilot of these ships he loves so dearly. Matt has proven himself to be a capable and dedicated member of Aurora's crew, frequently going above and beyond the call of duty. Such was the case the evening he assisted in the daring rescue of a critically injured balloonist whose damaged craft was discovered drifting over the Pacificus Ocean.

But Matt's ambitions appear as though they'll be completely thwarted by the arrival of Bruce Lunardi, son of the owner of the Lunardi Line. Bruce is given the job of assistant sailmaker, a job Matt both coveted and deserved.

Such is the state of affairs as our journey from Lionsgate City to Sydney, Australia, begins. And no sooner is Aurora underway than things begin to take unusual turns. A wealthy young woman, 15-year-old Kate de Vries, and her overbearing chaperone make a most unorthodox entry into the plot when their late arrival for Aurora's departure forces them to hire an ornithopter and make a dramatic mid-air docking.

Kate, it turns out, is the niece of the balloonist Matt attempted to save the preceding year. She's undertaking her journey aboard Aurora in a secret effort to prove that journal entries made by her uncle just prior to his death were not the ravings of a fevered mind. Her uncle described strange winged creatures, vaguely cat-like in their appearance, which he sighted near an uncharted island shortly before his balloon was damaged.

Kate wants Matt to join her quest to prove that these creatures exist. But it's no easy thing for a wealthy young lady and a cabin boy to conduct a covert investigation, particularly once pirates and deadly typhoons enter the picture.

"I was lucky. My foot caught his hand and knocked the pistol from his grip," writes Oppel. I think this quote captures the essence of the main weakness with Airborn. There's too much luck involved in Matt's adventures. While this novel's young readers may be quite forgiving of such a flaw, particularly in the face of the rollicking adventure Oppel's constructed, the story could have been even better with a bit more credibility.

Where Kenneth Oppel definitely succeeds is in his clever mix of plot and characterization. Matt is a nicely layered protagonist and the story allows readers to discover the depth of his strengths, and his weaknesses, through his actions. Matt's bravery, his jealousy, his sense of duty, all these traits play a role in the way the plot of Airborn twists and turns. Similarly, the secondary players are shown to be multidimensional. Kate de Vries is no angel, Bruce Lunardi no villain. Not even the leader of the pirates is without redeeming qualities. And so Airborn lifts itself above its shortcomings and soars, a thrilling, smart, well-written adventure that's sure to be a hit with young readers.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 23 July 2005

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