||A Review of: Skybreaker
by M. Wayne Cunningham
Toronto author, Kenneth Oppel, is once again flying high. Skybreaker, the recently released sequel to his 2003 award-winning, Airborn, is already winging its way up the kid's lit charts and gaining critical kudos on the way.
Now, likeable 16-year-old Airship Academy cadet, Matt Cruse, and his vivacious girl friend, Kate de Vries, are cruising at 20,000 feet with a mostly Sherpa crew in the Sagarmatha, an airship of the skybreaker class that's built "like a tiger shark". They're helping to salvage a derelict wreck, Hyperion, "a giant airborne whale" that has been drifting aimlessly for forty years above ice-bound Skyberia, a place "cold enough to stop clocks, and hearts too." Rumoured to be piloted by a ghostly crew and filled with gold, rare plant and animal specimens and years-before-its-time techno-gadgetry, the blimp's the brainchild of eccentric genius, Howard Grunel, whose Prometheus Engine can theoretically convert water into airship fuel.
Except for Airborn carry-forwards, Miss Simpkins, Kate's fluttery chaperone, and Chef Vlad at the Jewels Verne restaurant in Paris, where the Great Farini and the Lumiere filmmakers are patrons, Matt and Kate are surrounded by a whole new set of characters to help or hinder them. Hal Slater, the twenty-something, self-confident entrepreneurial owner and commander of the "Saga", as he calls his craft, intends to snag the Hyperion, scoop its gold and capture Kate's heart as well, which is reason enough for Matt's spluttering fits of jealousy. But Matt, in possession of the last known coordinates for the drifting derelict, has a romantic interest of his own in beautiful Nadira, a Roma with a mysterious past and, as it turns out, secret ties to Vikram Szpirglas, Matt's dreaded adversary in Airborn. She's got the long-lost key to the Hyperion's ferro-titanium, booby-trapped vaults, tied around her neck, and at times, Matt tied around her little finger-which incites Kate's jealousy. In fact, much of the interest in the book derives from the interaction of the four characters, with Ms. Simpkins raising her unapproving eyebrows on the sidelines.
Opposing the fearless four on their quest is a band of brigands in a skybreaker of their own, outfitted with an echolocator and commanded by the evil John Rath, and his boss, George Barton, the head of the monopolistic Aruba Consortium that produces fuel for the world's airships. Rath, like Hal, wants the Hyperion's gold while the Barton cartel wants the Prometheus Engine and its blueprints to eliminate any competition for their enterprise. Kate, of course, wants the zoological specimens. And Matt, the same as in Airborn, wants Kate.
How-and whether or not-everyone will get what he or she wants makes for a spine-tingling adventure in a setting that's literally out of this world: there's a fast-frozen phantom ship in which a double-wide coffin with a false bottom plays a part; Matt rides a ghastly translucent aerozoan with electrified tentacles; mummified quaggas, yetis, and dodos fixedly stare at marauding pirates chasing Matt and his friends through a vivarium, engineerium and cargo holds; and Kate haphazardly launches an ornithopter from the scuttled airship with Matt, gasping and grasping for air and clad in feathers like some ice-covered Icarus skydiving after her. It's a tribute to Oppel's storytelling skills that it all seems breathtakingly believable no matter how fantastic the plot becomes.
With its charismatic characters, imaginative settings, sensuous language, page-turning action, sprinkles of humour and bracing insights into universal truths, Skybreaker is a compelling read for Oppel's fans of both genders and of all ages. Hopefully, there are lots more of Matt and Kate's high-flying adventures on, or should we say, above, the horizon.