Author: Kenneth Oppel
Genre: Young Adult, Steampunk, Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date: May 2005
Paperback: 544 pages
Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow’s nest, being the ship’s eyes. We were two nights out of Sydney, and there’d been no weather to speak of so far. I was keeping watch on a dark stack of nimbus clouds off to the northwest, but we were leaving it far behind, and it looked to be smooth going all the way back to Lionsgate City. Like riding a cloud. . . .
Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the Aurora, a huge airship that sails hundreds of feet above the ocean, ferrying wealthy passengers from city to city. It is the life Matt’s always wanted; convinced he’s lighter than air, he imagines himself as buoyant as the hydrium gas that powers his ship. One night he meets a dying balloonist who speaks of beautiful creatures drifting through the skies. It is only after Matt meets the balloonist’s granddaughter that he realizes that the man’s ravings may, in fact, have been true, and that the creatures are completely real and utterly mysterious.
In a swashbuckling adventure reminiscent of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Oppel, author of the best-selling Silverwing trilogy, creates an imagined world in which the air is populated by transcontinental voyagers, pirates, and beings never before dreamed of by the humans who sail the skies.
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Matt Cruse trilogy
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I’ve heard nothing but praise for the works of Kenneth Oppel, and when looking for a new YA novel to read for Steampunk Week, Airborn was the clear choice.
Matt Cruse was born in the sky.
The son of a dedicated airman, Matt has always longed to fly like his father. And, after his father’s death, Matt finally gets to live out his wish, serving on his father’s old ship, the Aurora, as a cabin boy. Two years in service, the luxury airship comes across a marooned balloon in their path – and young Matt helps to bring the balloon’s sole inhabitant on board to safety. This old adventurer asks Matt if he had seen “them” – beautiful, flying creatures in the sky – just before he dies. One year later, Matt is still hard at work on the Aurora as a cabin boy, having lost out on his opportunity to advance to a junior sailmaker position (to a well-connected, rich young man). Though his hopes are temporarily dashed, Matt is always happiest in the air, and relishes his time aboard the magnificent ship. Then, he meets a girl named Kate de Vries – sassy, intelligent, and adventurous…as well as rich, pretty, and spoiled. As it turns out, Kate is the granddaughter of the man Matt rescued a year prior, and she is travelling on the Aurora with a very specific mission to discover exactly what her grandfather saw. Matt and Kate, despite their difference in class, become fast friends and work together to find answers, and elusive proof of Kate’s grandfather’s magnificent, winged creatures. Of course, things are never so easily accomplished and a number obstacles present themselves – namely pirates, a shipwreck, more pirates, and wild, unfettered danger.
Airborn is a rollicking adventure novel, blending aeronautics with compelling characters, stunning images, and a swashbuckling plot. It’s kind of like Titanic the The Swiss Family Robinson meets Up meets Treasure Island meets Die Hard in the sky. Sounds like an unlikely, unappetizing mix? Let me assure you, gentle readers, I mean this multi-genre/film/book mishmash comparison in the best possible way. I LOVE ALL OF THESE THINGS.
Ergo, I love Airborn.
At 500 pages, Airborn is a swift, unputdownable read. Narrated by Matt Cruse in a clear, level-headed, youthfully honest voice, this book managers to tread familiar waters – or rather, fly familiar skies, a more apropos metaphor – with pirates, young love across class differences, shipwrecks, and mythical bird creatures, and yet still feel fresh and exhilarating. This is the kind of adventure story I want to pass on to younger, reluctant readers, to get them excited about books, about the escapist, fun experience reading can be.
And fun Airborn truly is. Matt Cruse’s world is familiar in its Victorian-type era and aesthetic (impressive, dominant airships, strong class-dividing lines, era-specific wardrobes, etiquette and mannerisms), but Mr. Oppel manages to put a new, steampunk worthy spin on his technology, inventing an entirely new element called “hydrium,” lighter than hydrogen (enabling massive airships to fly to great altitudes without the need for gas or steam power) that smells, strangely, of mangoes. Throughout the book, it is little touches like this that make the setting seem completely natural, and the world plausible (for example, as Matt guides Kate on a tour of the Aurora he points out the many “Depressionist” paintings on display in the cigar room).
In addition to the swashbucking, altogether wondrous plot and worldbuilding, the characters are what make Airborn soar. Kate, as the headstrong and adventurous (dare I say young Amelia Peabody-esque – minus the parasol and ample…well, you know) young heroine is feisty and winsome, more so because she is not without her flaws. In addition to having the usual YA fantasy heroine traits (smart, driven, restless with the constraints of her class and family expectations), she also is uppity, spoiled, and careless – and it’s cool to see that. She’s not perfect, but that’s ok – she’s all the more real and endearing for it. But the true showstealer in Airborn is young Matt Cruse – Cabin Boy, narrator, and heart-wrenchingly honest young man. Matt’s voice is pure and resonant; he shares his fears and emotions without reserve, allowing readers to truly get a feel for this remarkable young protagonist. He’s (obviously) smitten with Kate, but infuriated by her manner at times too, and the interactions between these two characters is alternately tender and hilarious. They make quite the duo on their adventures together, and I cannot wait for more.
If you couldn’t tell, I truly loved Airborn. It’s a feast for the Young Adult, but also for the older, more world-weary reader, looking for pirate-story adventures to sweep them away on a current of mango scented Hydrium.
Plus, Airborn ends with the best closing line ever.
BUT IS IT STEAMPUNK? Hell freakin’ yeah it is. Ok, it’s light on the “punk” component. It doesn’t really challenge or critique society in any way – but the imaginative (yet still relatively simple) technology is central to the story, and it is set in a very Steampunk appropriate world. The book basically takes place on an airship, which isn’t just for show – we readers learn how it works, how the world looks, and what dangers accompany this strange technology. There’s also an almost a “Darwin goes to Galapagos” feel to the book so far as Kate and Matt’s excursions to discover the mysterious Cloud Cats and – very era and sub-genre appropriate.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:
“Sir, there’s a ship headed towards us!”
The airship was small, and I could now see why I’d not picked her out earlier. Her skin was painted black, and she carried no running beacons anywhere. No light emanated from the Control Car either. Her side bore no markings, no name or number. It was only her dark sheen from the moon’s light that made her visible at all.
“She’s at ten o’clock and sailing straight for us, half a mile.”
“Bear away,” I heard the first office tell his rudder-man. “Elevator up six degrees. Summon the captain.”
That meant we were going into a climb. The Aurora was as responsive as a falcon. Stars streamed to my left as the ship began her turn, angling heavenward. High in the crowsnest, I swivelled in my chair so I could watch the smaller vessel. As we turned and climbed, she turned and climbed with us, keeping herself on a collision course. This was no mistake. She was chasing us. She was smaller and faster than the Aurora, and I could feel the vibration of our engines at full capacity. We would not be able to outrun her.
“Where is she, Mr. Cruse?”
“She’s changed course, but still coming right at us. Closing, at eight o’clock.”
“Raise her on the radio!” I heard the first officer shouting out to the wireless officer.
“She’s not responding.”
A collision seemed sure now, but for what purpose?
“Some two hundred yards, sir.”
“Send out a distress call,” I heard Mr. Rideau instruct the wireless operator.
“We’re too far out, sir,” Mr. Bayard’s voice replied.
It was clear there was no shaking her, this sleek black raptor shadowing us through the night sky.
“She’s angling up, sir,” I said into the speaking tube, “as though she means to overshoot us.”
“Take us down, Mr. Riddihoff, take us down five degrees, with haste!”
I felt the Aurora pivot and her bow dip. My ears popped and heaviness rose through me. I swirled in my seat, peering up and almost over the ship’s stern as the airship pulled closer, altering course as seamlessly as if she’d anticipated our moves.
“Fifty yards off our stern!” I shouted into the speaking tube. “Forty, thirty . . . she’s pulling up over our tail.”
And so she was, this predatory airship, skimming over our tail fins and gradually overtaking us, only a few dozen feet overhead.
“She’s directly overhead, sir, matching us.”
We were levelling out now and so was the other airship. Less than half our size, she was like some agile black shark hounding a whale.
“Hard about, please.”
Through the speaking tube it was the captain’s voice I heard now, and I felt a surge of confidence to know he was on the bridge. He would see us through this. Again the Aurora swivelled, trying to throw off her predator, but once more the smaller ship matched our movements, slinking over us like a shadow. A spotlight flared from its underside, and I saw ropes springing from open bay doors and unfurling towards the Aurora.
“She’s dropping lines on us!” I shouted into the speaking tube.
Pirates! That was all they could be.
“They’re trying to board,” the captain said. “Dive and roll to starboard, please.”
The lines were weighted, for they hit the ship and didn’t slide off. I saw six men already dropping down towards me. But then the Aurora banked sharply, dipped, and the lines slewed off the Aurora’s back, leaving the men dangling in mid-air.
“Ha! You’ll not have us!” I shouted, shaking my fist.
But the pirate airship was already adjusting its course, keeping pace, and as it forced us closer to the waves, we would have less space to manoeuvre. There was a great flash from the pirate ship’s underbelly and a thunderous volley of cannon fire scorched the night sky across our bow.
A voice carried by bullhorn shuddered the air.
“Put your nose to the wind and cut speed.”
There was no need for me to repeat this into the speaking tube for I knew they had heard it in the Control Car. There was a moment of silence, and I could imagine them all down there, standing very straight and still, the elevator men and rudder-men watching the captain, awaiting his command. He had no choice. That cannon could sink us in an instant.
“Level off and put her into the wind, please,” said Captain Walken. “Throttle back the engines to one-quarter. Thank you.”
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Airborn is actually the first book in a trilogy following the adventures of Matt and Kate – the next two books are Skybreaker and Starclimber:
Former cabin boy Matt Cruse, now a student at the prestigious Airship Academy, is first to identify the Hyperion, the private airship of a reclusive and fabulously wealthy inventor that disappeared forty years ago with its owner. Armed with the Hyperion’s coordinates, which only he possesses, Matt, heiress Kate de Vries, and a mysterious young gypsy board the Sagarmatha, an airship fitted with the new skybreaker engines that will allow them to reach the Hyperion, 20,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Pursued by others who want the Hyperion and will stop at nothing to get it, and surrounded by dangerous high-altitude life forms, Matt and his companions are soon fighting not only for the Hyperion but for their very lives.
In this thrilling sequel to Airborn, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, Kenneth Oppel evokes the classic storytelling of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, creating a world in which a new discovery can have unimagined consequences — on earth and miles above it.
“Mr. Cruse, how high would you like to fly?”
A smile soared across my face.
“As high as I possibly can.”
Pilot-in-training Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries, expert on high-altitude life-forms, are invited aboard the Starclimber, a vessel that literally climbs its way into the cosmos. Before they even set foot aboard the ship, catastrophe strikes:
Kate announces she is engaged – and not to Matt.
Despite this bombshell, Matt and Kate embark on their journey into space, but soon the ship is surrounded by strange and unsettling life-forms, and the crew is forced to combat devastating mechanical failure. For Matt, Kate, and the entire crew of the Starclimber, what began as an exciting race to the stars has now turned into a battle to save their lives.
Award-winning and bestselling author Kenneth Oppel brings us back to a rich world of flight and fantasy in this breathtaking new sequel to Airborn and Skybreaker.
The series has an awesome interactive website, chock full of great extras. I highly recommend you go forth and check it out.
Rating: 8 – Excellent, and I cannot wait to pick up the next two books in the series!
Reading Next: Arcadia Snips and the Steamwork Consortium by Robert C. Rodgers