Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Book Review: Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel

Airborn is a novel of high adventure set in an alternate Edwardian era where heavier-than-air travel never quite got off the ground. Instead, giant airships have become the primary method of transport, plying the air routes around the world.  

Our chief protagonist, Matt Cruse, is cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora, the same ship his father once sailed upon before he met his untimely demise. For a novel of just over 320 pages (in paperback), author Oppel takes great care in both character development and in building the world they inhabit.

While serving as a lookout during a cross of the Pacificus (read: Pacific Ocean), Matt spots a battered balloon drifting nearby. It is brought aboard with its sole passenger an elderly man clinging to life. He later dies, but not before he and his diary reveal tantalizing clues about strange winged creatures.

Flash forward one year later. Matt is still serving as a cabin boy on the Aurora, after narrowly losing out to a much-deserved promotion to the son the airship line’s owner. In true heroic fashion, Matt tries to keep above it for the most part and Oppel plays this internal struggle quite well. One of the late-arriving passengers is a young woman whom Matt immediately develops a connection with her and her priggish chaperone (a bit of a cliché here).

Our course now firmly set, the plot moves forward to a climax involving dastardly air pirates, a mysterious island (what novel would be without that?) the resolution of the mystery of the winged creatures, young love, and much daring-do.

Airborn has many touches right of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and later authors such as Michael Moorcock and should satisfy every reader.  And although classified as a “young adult” (see my comments below), I highly recommend Airborn for all ages. 

If you haven't made your acquaintance with this novel, it's past time you do.


A funny thing happened on the way to this book review.

I found Airborn sitting on the shelves of my local thrift shop; since knowing the book was set in an alternate world and thus fit into the scope of this blog, I picked it up and took it to the cashier.  

The cashier looked at the book and sniffed at me, “That’s young adult fiction!”

I looked back at her, the hint of a Clint Eastwood glare in my eyes. Yeah, I got that. Just ring me through already. 

There is still a remarkable bias towards so-called “young adult fiction.” That the bias exists is something of a head-scratcher; after all the category occupies a growing space on the shelves of most bookstores, particularly in the SF and Fantasy sections, prime examples being the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series, both of which are best sellers and major motion picture franchises.  Of the books in the SF category, many do fall into the alternate-history genre, in particular, the more specialized steampunk sub-genre. Much of this success can be attributed to readership among young adults; however, one doubts they would have become the successes they are without their adult readership.

Funny indeed.

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.