Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

This novel, page Oppel’s fifth or so, order was an honor book by the American Publishers Association (Printz Award), tablets and in its native land of Canada, it won the Governor-General’s Award. I thought those were pretty good credentials, no?

Airborn, book 1 of at least 3 (book 3’s existence can only be inferred from the writer’s FAQ on his website), is set during an alternate Victorian era. I don’t know if England even has a queen in the book (it’s called Angleterre, anyway) or what precisely happened to deviate this historical era from our own, but the women are wearing long, high-necked dresses with way too much underclothing and everything is pre-automobile but post-early-industry. Rather than trains and cars or even ships, the technological marvel of the day is airships, large, lighter-than-air boats that float a couple thousand feet above the ground and go about seventy-five miles per hour. This is made possible by the discovery of a gas called hydrium, which is lighter than helium or even hydrogen. (I admit, I had a bit of a problem suspending my disbelief on that one, but it worked after a few pages.) This way, a two-million-pound airship can fly.

Matt Cruse is the cabin boy on the Aurora, a luxury-liner airship that, at the time, was traveling to Australia. In the opening section, the airship rescues a man in a hot-air balloon who was trying to make it around the world but had a heart attack. Since Matt had spotted the man’s balloon and was instrumental in the rescue, he felt a little responsible for him. However, the balloonist died – his injuries were too severe. Before he passed away, though, he asked Matt if he had ‘seen them’, implying some sort of flying creature. Matt, used to the illusions people see over the ocean, thought he was hallucinating. In any case, a year passed, and the older man’s granddaughter, Kate, comes on the airship to take a trip to Australia. It turns out that the ship is passing very near the coordinates where Kate’s grandfather saw the mysterious winged creatures, and she wishes to see what he saw.

Unfortunately, the airship is attacked by pirates, and they land on a deserted island. Or is it?

Matt is an interesting character; he’s the first-person narrator, and while he really doesn’t quite think like a fifteen-year-old modern boy, this can be explained in a couple ways. First, it’s the pseudo-Victorian era, and more poetic language was expected. Second, many of the other characters have more metaphorical language, and he had been on the ship since he was twelve – in other words, he’s heard that language for at least the last three years, and it probably stuck with him. It wasn’t jarring, though, or particularly unrealistic. Kate is also interesting, if a little less three-dimensional: she’s rich, but brash, talkative, scientific, smart, and stubborn. Her character is one that has become a sort of stereotype: the girl who thinks more like a boy from a repressed era where girls weren’t really supposed to be scientific or go to university or anything like that. That’s not to say that she isn’t fun; she’s capable and brave and she and Matt have several (innocent!) adventures together. (Well, mostly innocent. But this isn’t THAT kind of book!)

One of the pirates turns out to be a slightly more rounded character; he has a son and is a good, if often absent, father. Overall, with the possible exception of Kate, the male characters (of which there are a lot more) tend to be a lot more fleshed out than the female characters.

One thing I enjoyed about this book was that everything wasn’t quite black and white. A pirate turns out to be a good fellow. The rich kid the captain of the Aurora is forced to take as a crew member turns out to be a down-to-earth guy, if not particularly talented at his job. Matt reflects idly once that his chances of promotion are probably greater on a pirate ship, and I believe that the main reason he never actually considers it is that the Aurora is his home, rather than any sort of moral objection to piracy. (It’s implied, but I felt that it was a secondary consideration.)

As usual, during a Victorian era book, there’s a social commentary about one’s lot in life and one’s ability to choose one’s future. There’s also some consideration of adaptability and mobility. All in all, the philosophy and emotional ideas of the book are quite interesting, in addition to a fun plot and neat characters. The world-building, while not complete, was fairly good (hydrium behaved as it should, even if it smells like mangoes), and I would very much like to read the sequel, Skybreaker. Airborn gets 4.5/5 stars.

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