I've been meaning to read anything by Kenneth Oppel for a while. His book Silverwing struck me as a very creative idea with a ton of potential, but I hadn't quite gotten around to it -- many, many years after it's been published -- and then Airborn caught my eye. I've always loved the idea of airships -- what would have happened if the Hindenburg disaster had never happened? What if there was some lighter-than-air element that was available in large amounts, and inert? (Even better if it smells like mangoes!) Oppel appears to have been curious about the same questions. I think he's fascinated by anything flying.
Matt Cruse, our first person narrator, is fourteen years old when the story opens, and he participates in a daring mid-air rescue of a balloon pilot stranded over the Pacificus. A year later, the balloonist's granddaughter comes aboard the Aurora, the airship on which Matt is the cabin boy, to prove that her grandfather was not, as many have suggested to her, insane -- that there is an undiscovered species of aerial animals that congregates over an island in the Pacificus. And then there is a pirate attack, and the adventure begins...
The thing that makes this book so easy to read is Matt. He's a great narrator, fairly self-aware but also subject to very human flaws. He's interested in all the things I'm interested in as a reader, and he's not afraid to admit when he's been wrong although he may not be happy about it. He's a very hard worker, abides by the rules, and he loves what he does. He idolizes the Aurora's Captain Walken, has a chummy relationship with his cabinmate Baz, and absolutely adores, without reservation, the Aurora herself. Through his eyes, the airship takes on a character of her own and we come to love her too. Maybe not quite as much as Matt, but I'm pretty sure that's not possible.
And then there's Kate de Vries. From her spectacular entrance, Matt is alternately fascinated, attracted, and infuriated by Kate. She's a girl his own age with money to spare, and she's on a mission. She's not hampered by her ineffectual and highly irritating chaperone, she's spirited, and she's very, very smart. She's single-minded, occasionally to the point of being a danger to those around her, but she's never deliberately malicious, just enthusiastic and thoughtless. She loves books and words and ideas, but most of all she wants to be a scientist and isn't prepared to abide by society's rules when they stand in her way. Which they do, because the book is set in a time period somewhat before the 1920s, perhaps closer to the late 1800s. A reader more versed in history will probably figure that out a lot easier than I, but it's never stated and I don't think it needed to be.
I think this quote goes straight to the heart of Kate's character, and illustrates why I love her so much:
"We just start," she said. "Bones could be anywhere, if the creatures just fell from the sky. Of course, they might have been picked up by other animals. Unlikely, though -- there are probably no substantial mammals on the island." A little furrow of concentration appeared over each eyebrow. "But all animals feed on carrion. So, around trees with bird nests, or the lairs of skinks and lizards." She paused. "That's fun to say. Skinks and lizards."
Actually, Oppel knows how to use dialogue to expose character and does it well. I really enjoyed his dialogue. Take this interaction between the captain and his first mate:
"Well then," said the captain, "I believe this may be a good time to organize a party to explore the island."
"There may be inhabitants, captain," said Mr. Rideau.
"Precisely what I am hoping," said the captain.
"They may be a savage lot, sir, with no love of visitors."
"We shall have to be exceptionally charming, then," said the captain.
Captain Walken is a great leader. He's calm and professional and unfailingly positive even in the face of disaster; Mr. Rideau, on the other hand, is a rigid, by-the-book officer and prone to narrow-mindedness.
Since this post is starting to get dangerously long, two more quick points on why I think this book works so well. First, the aerial animals that Kate is chasing? They stay wild. They're a large predator, and like any large predator they are both beautiful and unpredictable. Oppel never offers to make them anything but a wild animal -- they're not preternaturally intelligent, or friendly towards humans just because -- and I appreciate that. Because this book is not that kind of book and was never set up to be.
Second, the villains. They're villainous, and dangerous, and generally very despicable. But they're not inhumanly evil. Not all of them are as fleshed out as the pirate leader, Szpirglas, but Oppel does a good job with a very little bit of space in the book of showing the humanity of his villains which makes their villainy both sad and even more frightening.
Overall: Airborn is a great adventure tale for any age, thrilling and touching, funny and occasionally sad. The characters are all genuinely wonderful and the setting is brilliant. Highly, highly recommended. I'm asking for it for my birthday because I'm going to read this one again and again.