by Kenneth Oppel
ISBN: 0002005379

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A Review of: Airborn
by M. Wayne Cunningham

Go on Toronto-based author Kenneth Oppel's website, www.kennethoppel.ca, and you'll find he has a fistful of awards and prizes for his previous nineteen kid lit books. Open his new novel, Airborn, and you'll soon discover why he continues to gain acclaim from readers and critics alike for his imaginative stories, characters and settings.
In the fictional 19th century world of Airborn, luxury airships ply their trade in passengers and cargo hundreds of feet above the Pacificus, veering away from uncharted skies and sailing over mysterious islands inhabited as we learn by mysterious creatures-all very reminiscent of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Chief among these transports is the 900-foot, 14-storey, 2-million pound-yes, 2 million pound-Aurora, propelled aloft by hydrium the lightest of lighter than air gasses. She's also home for 15-year-old Matt Cruse, her cabin boy since his father fell to his death in her service two years earlier. Guided by his father's unseen hand Matt aspires to become a Sailmaker and then ship's captain so he has learned every inch of every nook and cranny of the ship's structure-knowledge that proves invaluable as his adventures unfold.
As we meet the likeable young fellow, he is nimbly scrambling about, helping the ship's crew rescue an aging and dying balloonist whose log depicts sketches of stange half-bat, half-cat creatures about which before expiring he tells Matt, "Kate ... would've loved them."
A year passes during which Matt's integrity is severely tested when Bruce Lunardi, the son of one of the ship's owners, is promoted over him. Despite the setback, Matt sucks up his disappointment and befriends a passenger, 15-year-old Kate de Vries, the granddaughter of the ailing balloonist Matt encountered a year earlier. Through the sharing of the old man's diary and the occasional bout of jealousy towards Bruce, the accommodating Matt and strong-willed Kate learn as much about themselves and their attraction to each other as they do about the eerie "cloud cat" creatures Kate is determined to find and photograph in order to consolidate her grandfather's scientific legacy.
Besides sharing their affections, Matt and Kate are soon called upon to share a frightening experience when air pirates board the Aurora, robbing the passengers and in a frightful scene shooting the radio operator. As the brigands' ship scrambles away a storm blows it into the Aurora so that its propellers shred the liner's skins, allowing the precious hydrium to esape in a seeping hiss. Fortunately, the Aurora glides to an uncharted island, the very one where a disabled cloud cat has sought refuge and where as well the pirates have a secret village and there is a store of hydrium to replenish the Aurora.
Despite orders to remain close to the downed Aurora while it is being repaired, Matt, Kate and Bruce have a merry time escaping the claws of the cloud cat and the clutches of the pirates as they seek to bag a dead cloud cat's skeleton without letting the pirates know where the beached Aurora really is. Not to be outwitted, an eight-man party of the pirates finds and boards the ship, putting all of Matt's knowledge and skills to the test as he's forced to figure out a way to knock off the pirates one by one. The final encounter between Matt and the pirate captain is a tour de force. Ultimately wits and courage prevail, and the pirate slips from the Aurora's outer skin and disappears into the wild blue yonder. Unlike the pirate captain, Matt and Kate don't just disappear. They end up in Paris-Matt to attend the Airship Academy, and Kate to attend the university to further challenge the old boys' clubs of the times. And overhead the Aurora sails onward free of pirates and cloud cats.
There's the odd glitch in the story but there's more than enough tension, excitement and character development to provide for an enjoyable, entertaining read.

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