Friday, July 17, 2009

Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel

I'm a little mixed on Skybreaker, although I promise that it falls well on the side of "this is an awesome book" in the end. It wasn't as shiny wonderful as Airborn is, I guess -- my expectations were set foolishly high, and so it's not terribly surprising that in some ways Skybreaker fell a little short.

We start quite promisingly. Matt Cruse is completing a field placement for school -- he's a student now, at the Airship Academy -- on a rickety old freighter named, appropriately, the Flotsam. Caught in a storm and pressed forward by their foolhardy captain, the Flotsam nearly wrecks, saved only by Matt's quick thinking and mutinous action. But before they manage to get the ship under control, they have seen what many think impossible: the airship Hyperion.

The Hyperion had vanished nearly forty years before, and with her, what is believed to be a huge fortune in gold. Soon Matt, the only one who can remember the co-ordinates of the lost ship, is dodging pirates again, and then he's off to catch the Hyperion, helped by a Rom girl named Nadira, Kate de Vries, and the salvage skybreaker captain Hal Slater (along with the, er, "charming" Miss Marjory Simpkins, and Hal's truly charming crew). Things become complicated by a love quadrangle, dangerous airborne creatures, yet more pirates, brilliant inventors, and good old-fashioned greed.

In trying to put my finger on what I found less than engaging about this book, I'd have to say that the love quadrangle probably comes out as the culprit. I'll admit I'm prejudiced against them anyways, but this one didn't feel particularly well done to me. Because of the relationship tangles, much of the time we spend in Matt's head is spent on both confusion and frustration. It does feel pretty genuine to the teen thought process: "I felt pulled in different directions, and I hated it. I did not like myself" says Matt at one point, and boy, do I remember feeling that exactly. But for the most part, it really didn't click with me; and at times, the characters didn't feel like they were clicking with each other, even when they were supposed to. Furthermore, the resolution to this whole situation was just... way too fast and convenient, although the book immediately gets a lot better as soon as the situation is resolved.

The other thing I didn't buy was Matt's supposed newfound greed. At all. I think he buys it, but I didn't. It's just not in his character, and it's not portrayed convincingly enough for me to believe that he had such a change of personality. In fact, it seems a bit uncharacteristically ham-fisted of Oppel -- but again this was a major driving force for Matt's actions, at points, and so I had to buy it a little bit. So I deliberately suspended disbelief.

At this point, you might be wondering what did work well. The setting, once again, is just incredible. It feels completely real and it was completely creepy at points, too. The Hyperion is a ghost ship; for all intents and purposes, she is shipwrecked -- it's just that she's floating, not at the bottom of the ocean. I've always had a strange relationship with shipwrecks. I grew up spending summers swimming over the two schooners washed up in the cottage bay, and to this day I am both drawn and frightened by them. So the setting, on this aged and very eerie airship, is very very much my kind of thing. Is she haunted, is she not? Just where is the little manservant's body? And is anything, at all, left alive?

Another thing I really liked was the characterization work on Hal Slater, the captain of the salvage ship. He's not a villain, and he is a hero, but he's also not tremendously sympathetic. He's mercurial, and the reader doesn't know what to expect of him any more than the other characters do. His character is complex and fascinating, and an interesting exercise is to read him and wonder exactly how it is that he is so unlikeable and yet still almost likeable. He's the sort of character not seen particularly often in books for kids, or adults for that matter -- and I'm not sure I've ever encountered an unsympathetic central character who isn't a villain written so well.

And finally -- the last several chapters of this book just fly. They are so good. They make up for the frustrations I had with the earlier parts of the book. More than. There was a little twist at the end that I didn't see coming, although it was so perfect that I felt I should have seen it. There were times, through the last chapters, that I had to put the book down and go do something else for a bit -- but not too long! -- just so I wouldn't injure myself with my tensing. I'll admit I wasn't particularly anxious to read Starclimber, but then I got to the end. Now Starclimber is on hold at the library for me. This isn't a cliffhanger situation, by the way, although there are a number of little unanswered questions. I just want to spend more time in Matt's world.

If you like a good adventure, please read these books. Start with Airborn, and stick with the parts of Skybreaker that frustrate you (if they even do -- I might just be more prejudiced against love quadrangles than I realize myself) because the payoff is so very, very great.


Angela said...

I guess it's a good thing you stuck it out through the frustrating parts. Thanks for the review.

Unknown said...

Angie - You're welcome! I enjoyed writing the review because it helped me put my thoughts about it in order. It's a little more work than feeling "blech" or "meh" or "OMG AWESOME" about a book, but I prefer it this way!