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Airborn: Reviews

Winner of the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Literature!!

"Masterfully crafted and set in a highly creative world, this outstanding novel is a feat of powerful imagination. From cover to cover, the reader is in the hands of a superb writer." -- Jury citation

The Times (London)
Kenneth Oppel's Airborn is a terrific, rollicking adventure set in a Victorian world traversed by airships. It is narrated by Matt, a cabin-boy who must survive piracy and shipwreck on a volcanic island with only the spirited Kate to help him. Together, they track down the mysterious cloud cats which inadvertently killed Kate's father, and set each other free from convention. Matt is a lovely hero - fearless, smart, irreverent, sunny and agile as the young Indiana Jones.... Airborn bounces along, filled with irresistible optimism and a zest that makes you hope for a sequel.

Quill & Quire
*starred review*
From the soaring success of his Silverwing trilogy, Ken Oppel takes his readers even higher in the skies. His new novel, Airborn, is an accomplished shift from animal fantasy to an imaginary historical past, one that bears a distinct resemblance to the late 19th century. It is the era of the great airships - from a bat's point of view, surely the golden age of human evolution - when technology first allowed clay-footed humankind (or at least those members of it rich and privileged enough to buy passage) to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Airborn is not for the acrophobic. Fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the luxury airship Aurora, is more comfortable 800 feet above the earth than on solid ground. His surefooted aerial manoeuvres are enough to give most readers chronically sweaty palms. Yet we soon feel thoroughly anchored in this oddly familiar world. The position of cabin boy on an airship seems much like that of cabin boy on a sea-going ship. Matt knows and loves every inch of the Aurora, the same ship from which his father dropped to his death. Despite the sadness of this association, it is where Matt feels least burdened by the loss, living the life his father wanted.

As the ship crosses the great Pacificus bound for Lionsgate City, the watchful Matt sights an eerie object in their path: a battered hot air balloon, adrift, its sole passenger unconscious. The dying passenger's notebook is filled with extraordinary drawings of bizarre winged creatures, half bat, half panther. Are these animals real, or merely products of a fevered imagination? By now Oppel has set the scene for a tautly paced adventure, solidly built around character. Matt's passion for flying drives the book.

Oppel's move to older readers (12 to 15 years old) is a first for the Toronto-based writer, whose career began at the tender age of 17 with Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, published in 1985. Since then, Oppel has written 19 books for young and middle readers, as well as an adult mystery, The Devil's Cure. The enormously successful Silverwing trilogy - which garnered him a sheaf of prizes including the Mr. Christie's Book Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, and the CLA Book of the Year for Children - is the basis of an animated series currently airing on the Teletoon network.

Like the Silverwing books, Airborn provides an opportunity for Oppel to work together a rich lode of research. For this reason alone the book is a wonderful resource for teachers, as the basis of a treasure hunt to sort real from imaginary, or an introduction to the wonderful literature of lost worlds. Oppel romps through the territories of Jules Verne and W.H. Hudson, throwing in some of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and The Admirable Crichton for good measure. The result is a vividly imagined, lushly evoked simulacrum of the past. Technology and scientific discovery are advancing side by side, shaking Western culture at its foundations. Bright young women rush into the breach, demanding freedoms and education. Exceptional young men like Matt manage to rise through rigid hierarchies on their ability rather than social pedigree, though not without setbacks and disappointments.

As Aurora heads southward again on a new voyage, among her passengers is Kate de Vries, the heir of the dead balloonist that Matt had discovered. Unable to accompany her beloved grandfather on his last voyage, she is determined to validate and claim his scientific legacy: the discovery of the fabulous flying mammals whose existence has hitherto gone unrecorded. A bond soon grows between Kate and Matt, despite social differences. Matt knows very well that a cabin boy has no business speaking as an equal to a rich young female passenger. Yet his decency and good sense make a good match for Kate's headstrong drive. Both young people are self-reliant out of necessity, since Matt is fatherless and Kate is neglected by her parents. Together they face some knotty moral issues.

Before Kate can prove the existence of her grandfather's sky cats, enter stage left airship pirates, the violent predators of capitalism. They strip the rich passengers of valuables and leave the Aurora mortally wounded to founder on an uncharted island. For Kate this disaster is a piece of good fortune: surely this is the very island where her grandfather made his sightings. She plunges into the bush, dragging a reluctant Matt behind. Oppel creates powerful tension between the double threats of human evil in the form of the pirates and the forces of nature that are red in tooth and claw. The situation becomes deadly serious and truly frightening when the darkness in human hearts meets the wildest of beasts in a stunning showdown.

At 322 pages, Airborn is substantial, but that will hardly daunt readers whose wrist muscles and page-turning fingers have survived the latest Harry Potter. The action is at times heart-stopping, the dialogue lively and convincing. Oppel's images take lasting root in our memories: a furiously pugnacious little red snake, for example, or a spectral skeleton stretched in death along a tree limb. The airship is meticulously evoked, its crew vividly sketched. Only the wealthy passengers have oddly little solid presence, except in times of crisis. We don't hear their laughter and clinking glasses, don't see their glossy furs and glittering jewels. However, the omission is understandable since Matt likely sees them as just ballast on his personal journey.

Sometimes it feels as if things work out a little too neatly, as when Matt discovers that the hissing noise deep in an island cave is made by the leaking of the very gas needed to reinflate the Aurora. But then we must remind ourselves that this is fantasy, after all... and as the Swiss Family Robinson would attest, often that's just the way it happens on a desert island.
--Maureen Garvie

Publishers Weekly
In crisp, precise prose that gracefully conveys a wealth of detail, Oppel (the Silverwing Saga) imagines an alternate past where zeppelins crowd the skies over the Atlanticus and the Pacificus, and luxury liners travel the air rather than the sea (references to films by the Lumière “triplets” and various fashions suggest a very early 20th-century setting). Young Matt Cruse works aboard the elegant passenger airship Aurora, where his late father also worked. In an exciting opening sequence, Matt rescues an injured old man flying solo in a stranded hot air balloon; the man later dies, but not before telling Matt of “beautiful creatures” that he saw sailing through the air. Matt’s curiosity about the man’s dying words is piqued a year later when the fellow’s granddaughter Kate arrives on board, bearing his journal. As other plot lines develop, pirates attack the Aurora, which crash-lands on an island that closely resembles a drawing in the old man’s journal. There are minor, pleasing shades of the film Titanic throughout—the rich but overprotected girl, the poor but daring and lovable cabin boy, and the vessel itself, which is a sprawling and multifaceted character in its own right—but Oppel places the emphasis squarely on adventure rather than romance, keeping the pace brisk and the characters dynamic. The author’s inviting new world will stoke readers’ imaginations—and may leave them hoping for a sequel (those curious for a preview can log onto Ages 12-up.

School Library Journal
*starred review*
An original and imaginative Victorian-era fantasy.... This rousing adventure has something for everyone: appealling and enterprising characters, nasty villains, and a little romance. Oppel provides glimpses of the social conventions of the era, humourous byplay between the main characters, and comic relief in the form of Matt's cabin mate and Kate's straitlaced chaperone.

Vancouver Sun
A classic tale. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of novels dealt with undiscovered worlds in either the past or the future. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger series is a fine example, while A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James de Mille, is a classic example of early Canadian science fiction. It's interesting that Oppel has so carefully and consciously modelled his novel on these intellectual forebears. This lends Airborn a literary resonance too often lacking in fantasy writing for young readers. Airborn also has great filmic potential, and the characters will appeal to young male and female readers alike.

BCCB (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books)
*starred review*

In an adventure novel set in an alternate early twentieth-century world reminiscent of those created by Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, cabin-boy Matt Cruse earns a living on the zeppelin Aurora, a world-class luxury liner.... Through pirate attacks, shipwreck on an uncharted island, and imprisonment, Matt and Kate collaborate in an often uneasy partnership to find proof of the cloud cats' existence. From start to finish, the pacing is brisk, the physical details are specific and persuasive, the characterization is consistent yet dynamic, and the interweaving of the plot threads is meticulous but discreet, The tension created by danger at diverse levels gradually increases reader interest already piqued by the possible discovery of an awe-inspiring new species. The deaths of certain zeppelin crew members heighten that interest, as does the romantic tension between working-class Matt and upper-class Kate. On a deeper plane, Matt's narrative explores the uncertainties and obstacles inherent in the struggle to know one's place in the world. A thoroughly satisfying tale, this novel takes a standard premise from the early days of novelistic adventuring and reinvents it as a new literary achievement.

The Guardian (UK)
Oppel's popular Silverwing trilogy was about bats, so an airborne life is clearly something that fascinates this award-winning Canadian writer. In his new novel, Oppel climbs aboard the Aurora, a vast airship in which the hero, Matt, lives and works.

Matt is alerted to the possibility of terrifying flying creatures unknown to man by a balloonist he rescues, but is generally more interested in promotion to a more prestigious role on board the airship. His interest is further kindled with the arrival of the balloonist's granddaughter, the combative Kate. She is determined to prove her grandfather right, and Matt, despite their social differences, joins her. But when the Aurora is taken over by pirates, their priorities have to change.

Oppel's descriptions of the airship are breathtaking, but never to the detriment of the action, which is extremely well sustained. The physical entity of the Aurora dominates the novel, and is evoked with almost vertigo-inducing intensity at times. Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines fans can relax - this is no copycat novel. It is another great example of the liberating qualities of airborne adventure.

Horn Book Magazine
Matt is a wonderfully enthusiastic narrator whose passion for flight is evident on every page, and he's well matched by the strong-willed, intellectually curious Kate. Their adventures in this fast-paced, buoyant novel have a sweeping cinematic feel as pirates attack the Aurora, the vessel is shipwrecked, and Matt and Kate escape imprisonment just in time to dispatch the bad guys, save the Aurora and its passengers, and, of course, fall in love.

Montreal Gazette
Award-winning author Kenneth Oppel soars to new heights with this latest novel, solidifying his fascination with flight and flying mammals. But this time the creator of the Silverwing trilogy isn't dealing with bats. Instead, he gives us a wholly fantastic creature - a mysterious "cloud cat" that looks like a silver panther, about four feet long, and a wingspan eight feet
across. Oppel's tale is well-paced and his characters are engaging. This book is a must-read. Ages 9 to 14.

Kirkus Reviews
"Entrancing, exciting adventure with airships, pirates, and mysterious flying mammals takes place on an earth with the same geography as ours, but different technology.... Full of a sense of air, flying details, and action."

The Globe & Mail (Toronto)
The airship Aurora, centrepiece of the novel, is more than a setting; it's a universe unto itself, with luxurious passenger cabins and cramped crew quarters, sweeping stairways and hidden catwalks, vast dining halls and noisy kitchens. In short, it's the sort of place a reader wants to settle into and explore. Oppel, through his immensely likable narrator, Matt Cruse, invites us to do just that.... A funny, engaging adventure story -- the kind of book you read in a day or two (or stay up late to finish).... Airborn is all that. Lighter than air, but with unexpected lifting power. -- Robert Charles Wilson

VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)
"Kate and Matt are given equal roles in this adventure laced with a touch of fantasy reminiscent of Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Committing several murders, the pirates are typically unsavoury but are not stock cartoon characters. This title, packed with suspense, fantasy, and thrills, is a solid selection geared to middle school boys."

"Details of life and work aboard the ship as well as the dramatic escapade itself make this a captivating read."

If you thought the hot-air balloon scenes in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy were exciting, hitch a ride on the Aurora airship in Kenneth Oppel's spectacular young-adult fantasy novel Airborn. Oppel, known for his best-selling Silverwing trilogy about the hidden lives of bats, has more in common with the famous British fantasy author than an interest in flight and a predilection for publishing books in threes. Like the popular Pullman series, Airborn is set in an alternative world where the similarities to our own are every bit as fascinating as the differences. In this case, what if some of the early 20th century's more bizarre experiments in aviation had actually worked? In Oppel's imaginary, not-so-distant past, giant luxury airships ply the air like ocean liners (thanks to a miraculous mango-scented gas called hydrium), while flying contraptions with feathered mechanical wings taxi people about--and everything else is slightly altered as a result.

In its story of a charming, flight-struck 15-year-old cabin boy named Matt Cruse, Airborn combines elements of Treasure Island (a dramatic shipwreck, flying pirates, and a mysterious tropical isle) with an upper-deck/lower-deck romance reminiscent of Titanic. When Matt rescues an old man from his punctured balloon, he dismisses the balloonist's tales of beautiful winged cougars as delirium. But with the arrival aboard ship of the free-spirited Kate de Vries, the fatherless boy finds himself caught up in a scientific quest that reveals as much about his own fear of being land-locked as it does about these elusive "cloud cats." A master stylist, Oppel keeps his prose as streamlined and fast-paced as ever while feathering his tale with flight-inspired allusions to the Icarus myth and Peter Pan. Although not as metaphysically complex as his bat novels, Airborn is a soaring aerial joyride for thinking teens. --Lisa Alward

The Irish Times
Kenneth Oppel's AIRBORN is a high adventure in every sense. 15-year-old Matt Cruse, cabin boy on the Aurora, a luxury hydrium-powered airship, tells a tale that never flags for 400 pages. Oppel's description of Captain Walken and his crew, the ship itself, the strange and vicious "cloud cat" creature, a tropical island, its forests and pirate village (pirates are named Crumlin, Rathgar: Oppel, a Canadian, spent a year in Dublin) the wilful Kate de Vries whom Matt falls for, the sharp dialogue - all are brilliantly done. At the outset, the old-fashioned entertaining storytelling, with its spectacularly clear picturing of events, reminded me of Robert Louis Stevenson; but its momentum-gathering plot, shootings, dangers, savagery and suspense add a James Bond dimension. Though Kate and Matt "have as much future as a fish and a kangaroo", love triumphs. Set in an imaginary past, Airborn's contained world is totally absorbing, cleverly plotted, a terrific read. My 12-year-old daughter and I raced through it. No Harry Potter this summer -- Oppel's Airborn more than makes up for it.

Brand New PLanet / Toronto Star
Get ready for Airborn, another action-packed book from Kenneth Oppel (who wrote the Silverwing trilogy).... Wow! I've read many Kenneth Oppel books, and I think Airborn is one of the best he has written. By the end of the first paragraph, I was already fully submerged in the story. The plot is filled with one exciting moment after another. There are just so many unexpected events that happen.... There are also many clever survival tricks Matt and Kate use to free themselves from danger. Many of them made me jump out of my chair! Kenneth Oppel puts detail into the characters' emotions so you can really get a feel for all the events. This book kept me entertained chapter after chapter. I can't wait for the sequel to come out!
-- Taylor Lew, 13, Grade 7

Locus Magazine
Airborn is good, old-fashioned YA adventure with an alternate reality twist. In this early 20th-century world, "airships" are a major mode of transportation.... Matt [faces] pirates, storms, shipwreck on a desert island, and other dangers in this rousing adventure."

Booktrusted News(UK)
Airborn is a satisfying rip-roaring adventure ... Oppel writes with clarity and passion, particularly in his descriptions of the natural world and the world in the sky, and the plot fairly zips along, but there is also a reflective quality to his writing, and he is not afraid to tackle the issue of death. Kate and Matt, both dreamers and kindred spirits, are well-rounded characters, frustrated by the class differences between them, and argumentative as a result. If you liked Mortal Engines and Harry Potter, this is for you!"

Victoria Times Colonist
Airships represent to many the most romantic and elegant means of travel. For a while, in the early 20th century, they seemed to be the way of the future for intercontinental travel. Massive, ungainly on the ground, they were agile, swift and captivating when skyward. But they could be dangerous and vulnerable. In his latest novel, Airborne (HarperCollins, $22.99), Kenneth Oppel, the multi-award winning Canadian author of Sunwing, Silverwing and Firewing, wonderfully imagines a time when airships plied the skies, Earth-bound society was late Victorian, and the world still had undiscovered secrets. This is a story that blends high-skies piracy, risky escapes, unknown tropical islands, strange, graceful but ultimately sinister "sky cats" and the inner workings of life aloft with a subtle swipe at class barriers and primness. Oppel is an accomplished author of thrilling stories, but his real skill is in creating characters, bad and good, who are convincing, involving, sometimes funny and always easy to cheer on. Oppel really is the successor of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, and he is just as good.

Times Educational Supplement (UK)
"A tightly plotted, fast-paced adventure with engaging and humourous characters....When the action kicks off -- kidnappings, shoot-outs with pirates, cloud cat attacks -- Oppel's skill is to maintain tension by piling on twist after twist as events unfold. Airborn's action is underscored by Matt's memories of his dead father, which add thoughtfulness and depth to the book."


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