Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Book Review: Airborn

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. Grades 6 and up.

If you're looking for an engrossing fantasy-adventure with believable characters and a well-detailed world, look no further. I'd been meaning to pick this one up for a long time and I'm so glad I finally did.

Young Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the Aurora, has always dreamed of flying an airship. He was born on one and he feels more at home in the sky than anywhere else. When he helps rescue a dying man from a balloon over the ocean, Matt sets into motion a series of events that will change his life forever.

There are a few things about this book that really stuck out in my mind as I read it. The first is imagery. I noticed it from the very beginning. Oppel's detailed writing really made me feel like I was there watching all of this happen. Take this bit about stars (on the very first page):

The sky pulsed with stars... So when I look up I see a galaxy of adventures and heroes and villains, all jostling together and trying to outdo one another, and I sometimes want to tell them to hush up and not distract me with their chatter. I've glimpsed all the stars ever discovered by astronomers and plenty that haven't been. (pp 1-2)

Right from the start, I was with Matt Cruse as he stood on the crow's nest and looked out over the ocean, seeing billions of stars as far as he could see. I was in his world. I was hooked.

Another thing I loved about this book are the characters. My problem with some kids' books, especially mysteries and adventure, is that I don't always believe that these kids can really do the things they're doing. I want to shake them and tell them to go get a grown-up to help them. But with Matt Cruse, 15-year-old cabin boy, I honestly believed that he could do all the adventuring and taking charge that he does in this book. Oppel gives him a history with the ship, a history of being in the air. You know that Matt has a passion for this airship and that he will quite literally do anything he can to save her.

Another of the main characters is a spunky girl named Kate de Vries. She's a passenger on the airship who also has passion for the things she loves. She also happens to get Matt into trouble a lot. I love that Matt has a love-hate relationship with her. She's high class and pampered, while he's poor and has had to work hard for everything he's ever gotten. Although he's immediately attracted to her, there are also times when he sees how different they are and he doesn't always like her.

...I understood then that hers was a world where she got her own way and nothing was impossible. For a moment I almost disliked her. Could she even imagine how other people lived? (pg 100)

Although Matt may have mixed feelings for Kate, I never did. Kate is an energetic, intelligent, stubborn young lady. She doesn't need rescuing and she's intent on meeting her goals, no matter who she might inconvenience. As the book is set in an alternate history (a date is never mentioned, though the author mentions that he imagined it in the time of the real airships, so somewhere between 1900 and 1930), Kate's gumption is not much appreciated by her chaperon. Matt, however, likes her just the way she is. When he's not almost disliking her, that is.

Class is also a strong element in the book (or maybe I'm just noticing it more because of the recent discussion about class in YA lit). Matt is quite definitely from a lower-class family. He's also very low-ranking on the ship, though he believes that with hard work and perseverance, he can rise in the ranks. It's been slow going for him, though, and it's not easy when a young man with connections swoops in and takes the job that had been all but promised to Matt. Although Matt and Kate are together quite a bit, Matt always feels that wrong-ness of it, the impropriety of him being there with this high-class girl. Kate, however, never seems to think of it.

Altogether, I thought it was a fabulous book. I couldn't put it down and I'm really looking forward to reading the sequel. I'd recommend this one to fans of fantasy-adventure like Peter and the Starcatchers or Gregor the Overlander or even The Golden Compass.