Review: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

You may recall how much I loved the book Airman by Eoin Colfer back in May. The adventure, the embrace of science, the intense writing and journey the protagonist goes through. It was also one of the best audiobooks I’d heard. So, since then I’ve been looking for readalikes, and one of the first I selected was Airborn by Kenneth Oppel. I mean, it’s got practically the same name, they’re both upper-middle-grade steampunk-toned novels, they’re both by children’s writers famous for other series… I got the audiobook and it was boring. Or rather, interesting, but slow. And I could tell from listening that I’d be characterizing the people rather differently if left to my own devices, and I liked my inflections better. After the first hour or two — heard over the course of several weeks — I finally got the paper version. I’m very glad I did, because it turned out to be an awesome book I downed in two days. Here’s the description:

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.

The setting is a believable steampunk alternate history that nods to a whole world of airships and exploration. It feels like a real version of our own world rather than just a few characters and a setting with gears glued onto it. And, while it doesn’t convey the same concept of science as a noble and difficult pursuit that Airman centered, it offers a sense of discovery and a world where science is needed, where it makes spectacular travel possible and helps us make sense of all the things yet to be known. The flying animals, which I initially imagined as pegasi for no particular reason, are the most creative and different part of the book. They’re not pegasi; they’re not anything I’ve known before, but they seem like something that could be real, and that’s the key to the whole tone of the book. Oppel achieves an almost horrorlike pacing in his gradual reveal, combining fear with awe with, again, a genuine sense of undiscovered possibilities.

The characters are really good too. Most of the supporting cast have only one or two defining features, it’s meant for slightly younger readers, but the main characters have enough nuance to carry the story through. There’s a remarkable subtlety to the way Matt Cruse is written — he’s a cabin boy who wants to be an adult, and is treated like an adult, and he talks like one too. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and consumed by duty, and all that comes through authentically. He loves the sky both truly and frantically, for reasons fully explored in the text, and his minor panic attack when he’s confined in a cave won me over to the book more than anything else — Airborn is a swashbuckling “boy adventure” in the old style, but it’s not toxic. And Kate, who initially seemed like your typical irritating “strongwilled young woman” love interest character, was just as compelling. The book doesn’t just pass over their difference in class and Kate’s unconscious entitlement, but still recognizes that as a woman she also has limited choices, even if her options are quite different from Matt’s.

Midway through the book, the story kind of redirects from the flying creatures to a more in-depth pirate story. It still hangs together and is a great adventure story, with sufficient flying creatures, but I would’ve liked the plot to be more about them. I might feel differently had I known the turn was going to happen, so I’m warning you now. Even with that slight disappointment, though, it still hangs together really well. There’s this great moment toward the end where it all comes together — Matt grieving for his father, his dreams of flying and being lighter than air, the flying creatures. They have a thematic affinity for him that works really well, and that moment of resolution makes the book great. It’s not as complex as Airman, but almost as good.

There are two more books in the Matt Cruse series, which I’ll get around to eventually, but what should I try next?

On Goodreads | On Amazon

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