Kenneth Oppel,
(HarperCollins, 2005)

Original young-adult fantasy is hard to come by, and it is seldom as intelligent, well-peopled and exhilarating as Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker (along with its predecessor, Airborn). The two books are set in an appealing alternate world that contains 20th-century elements and events but ends up feeling more Victorian than anything else. The key difference between Oppel's fantasy world and ours, however, lies in the discovery of a new, extraordinarily light gas called hydrium that allows huge, floating vessels to cross the skies for leisure, business -- or piracy.

Skybreaker is set a short while after the tumultuous events of Airborn. Matt Cruse, former cabin boy aboard a luxury airship and heroic slayer of a notorious pirate (or so the papers have it), is about to find that his adventures are not yet over. When he is on a training mission aboard an old airship named the Flotsam, the ship is caught in a storm and flung dangerously far up into the updraft. But the Flotsam is not alone up there: drifting just out of reach above her is the Hyperion, a ghost ship lost 40 years ago while carrying a wealthy and eccentric inventor and all his earthly possessions. Through a strange twist of fate, Matt becomes the only person in the world with the exact coordinates of the ship.

Enter his friend (and possibly just a bit more) from Airborn, Kate de Vries: heiress, budding biologist and irrepressible adventurer to whom a treasure ship with a famed collection of unusual taxidermy proves irresistible. Enter Nadira, a gypsy girl with a mysterious past who claims to have the only key to the inventor's laboratory on the Hyperion. Enter Hal Slater, the dashing self-made man who offers the services of his "skybreaker," a ship specially designed to endure extremely high altitudes -- for a price. And if the rising tension between these four characters and their differing motives for seeking the Hyperion were not enough to derail the expedition, enter, too, some unscrupulous villains who will do anything for the treasure aboard the ship.

And that's just the beginning of a heady, airborne adventure. Any slightness of plot is easily overshadowed by Oppel's ability to write great scenes. Whether his heroes are escaping across rooftops or diving through the sky in winged ornithopters, his writing has a cinematic attention to detail that makes it impossible to put down. The scenes aboard the Hyperion, haunted by the presence of the stiff bodies of her frozen crew, inexplicable noises and long undisturbed inventions, are particularly memorable. Oppel keeps the surprises coming up to the very end.

Fortunately, the adrenaline rush is also accompanied by clever dialogue and well-rounded characters. Matt, while an unusually intelligent and honest narrator, remains convincing as an ordinary 16-year-old boy. He is acutely aware of the social gap between himself, the upperclass students at his academy, and the wealthy and unattainable Kate, glumly noting that "the best I could look forward to was an officer's salary -- a year of which would buy the rugs in Kate's apartment." Kate, however, is much the same as she was, the sort of willful, quick-witted heroine who would be at home in a Lloyd Alexander adventure; Nadira, though no less brave or clever, makes an interesting foil to Kate and a compelling character in her own right. Despite the fantastic nature of the events, all characters act out of completely logical motives and in keeping with their personalities, and the story is the better for it.

Head and shoulders above most fantasies, Skybreaker is a fun, fast and surprisingly thoughtful read. Although it is a fully self-contained tale, it should be read after Airborn, which is instrumental in introducing Oppel's splendidly inventive world and setting up certain events. Inevitably, Skybreaker lacks a bit of the novelty that made its predecessor so memorable, but it remains an impressive achievement as a novel and a sequel -- hopefully the first of several more to come from Kenneth Oppel.

by Jennifer Mo
3 December 2005

In my Rambles.NET review of Kenneth Oppel's novel Airborn (2004), I referred to the book as "a Victorian period, alternate Earth story filled with adventure, intrigue and just the right degree of romance." Now, Oppel has returned to the world he created in Airborn and his protagonist, 16-year-old Matt Cruse, is headed for more daring aerial exploits.

Skybreaker is every bit as strong a book as its predecessor and does a wonderful job of moving Oppel's lead characters forward in time. This is no Hardy Boys sequel with everyone seemingly static -- Frank and Joe forever trapped at ages 16 and 17. Matt is now enrolled at the Airship Academy in Paris, en route to a career aloft. But he's far from a brilliant student. His natural instincts for flying the lighter-than-air ships that dominate modern travel and commerce don't translate into an ease in understanding the mathematics and physics that are required components of the academy's curriculum.

Skybreaker opens with Matt on a training flight that goes terribly wrong when the ship's captain underestimates a huge storm raging above the Indian Ocean. Flotsam, after being tossed about by the storm, is caught in a massive updraft that catapults the ship high above the storm. Then, from the crow's nest comes word that another ship has been sighted, higher still. When it turns out to be the ghost-ship Hyperion, Captain Tritus gives the order to climb and attempt to salvage the legendary ship and its treasure. The temperature and air pressure plummet and the deadly effects of hypoxia -- high altitude sickness -- begin to be felt among the crew. Eventually, with crewmembers blacking out around him, Matt takes control of the ship, abandoning Hyperion.

Back in Paris, Matt learns from his former partner-in-adventure Kate de Vries that the sighting of Hyperion has become front-page news. Kate informs Matt that she's decided to launch a salvage mission to retrieve the collection of rare animal specimens that were aboard the ship when it disappeared along with its eccentric owner 40 years previously. Meanwhile, less scrupulous folk are also plotting to locate Hyperion for the riches it was thought to be carrying. And Matt, as assistant navigator on Flotsam, becomes a target -- the only person, following the death of the ship's navigator, who might be able to recall the Hyperion's precise coordinates.

As in Airborn, Oppel takes full advantage of his deft plotting skills in Skybreaker. The story chugs along, with a number of surprising twists and turns thrown in to keep the reader fully engaged. Yet there's plenty of character exploration as well. Matt is forced to confront his jealousy and the strength of his feelings for Kate when the captain of the ship she charters turns out to be suave, wealthy, handsome and very interested in young Miss de Vries.

Then there's the gypsy girl, Nadira, who claims to be the keeper of a secret key to Hyperion's booby-trapped cargo hold. "She was very pretty, and it made me uncomfortable. Was that why I was still sitting here? Or was I genuinely, dangerously curious? I found the way she looked at me unnerving. Her gaze had a locksmith's insistence."

While a number of Skybreaker's secondary players remain somewhat two-dimensional, there's an ample degree of internal conflict and character imperfections among the novel's central characters. Oppel manages to expose and explore these traits without in any way detracting from his plot. It's a balance that helps lift Skybreaker above the YA fiction norm.

Oppel is a clever writer and he's done his homework. He invests the novel with a wealth of references drawn from both the history of aviation and of the conquest of Mount Everest. His descriptions of ornithopters and lighter-than-air craft are wonderfully passionate and detailed. And the names of the Sherpa crew hired for the salvage of Hyperion reference Everest summiters including Edmund Hillary's partner, Tenzing Norgay (1953), Ang Kami Sherpa (1965) and Tenzing Dorje, who was a part of 2000 Expedition Canada.

This is first and foremost an adventure story for young-adult readers, and as such I have to forgive the rather over-the-top climax to Matt and Kate's adventure aboard the Hyperion (my daughter thought it was amazing, not unbelievable in the least). But Oppel's occasional lapses of logic regarding the need for Nadira's key are rather more problematic. It's almost as if the author, after writing himself into a corner, hoped we'd all turn a blind eye while he conjured up a convenient new escape hatch. Still, the relatively few flaws in the plotting are more than counterbalanced by the multitude of strengths in Oppel's storytelling.

Skybreaker is a book that will leave young readers anxious for a third installment in the story of Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries. And I, too, am looking forward to the next chapter in this high-flying adventure.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
10 December 2005

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