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Skybreaker

Style: Good

Attitude: Unobjectionable

In Brief: An enjoyable adventure, if a little slow-moving in places. The pseudo-Edwardian setting with its valve-and-steam technology provides the atmosphere for what is a fairly conventional adventure plus romance story with no real issues. The supporting characters are mostly cardboard but the main leads have just enough depth to them, the female characters in particular having strengths and weaknesses without compromising their femininity.

Cover of Skybreaker

Author: Kenneth Oppel

Series: Airborn

Publisher: Hodder

Published in: 2005

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Early 20th C

Setting: Paris, the skies over Antarctica

Genres:  AdventureBoysFantasySeafaring


Characters:

  • Matt Cruse is a 16-year-old cadet at the Air Academy in Paris. He has a natural affinity for flying, and a crush on the rich Kate de Vries. He wants to earn enough to help his hard-up and arthritic mother and his sisters.
  • Kate de Vries is a rich and independent-minded heiress who befriended Matt when he was a cabin boy. She's passionate about Natural History and quietly loves Matt, but is not above making him feel jealous when there is competition for his affection.
  • Hal Slater is the confident, self-made captain of a Skybreaker airship, able to endure greater heights than any other aircraft. He is an impressive figure, and he and his mostly Sherpa crew share a mutual respect. His outlook is apprently quite mercenary.
  • Nadira is an adventurous young woman with a mysterious past. She and Matt are attracted to each other.

Synopsis:

Matt Cruse learns of the location of the lost airship Hyperion, reputed to be carrying vast wealth. His rich friend Kate wants to catalogue its collection of taxidermy while other people want the gold said to be on board. They bring to the expedition the mysterious Nadira who (literally) holds the key to the Hyperion, and the dashing Hal Slater, captain of a Skybreaker airship. In the background is a shady group who would rather no-one found the ship and its contents.

Notes:

(It's not really a seafaring story even though I've tagged it as such, but it's very much in the seafaring genre).

There's quite a market these days for simple adventure stories, combining conventional black-and-white thrilling plots with a modern pace and style. (Have a look at Jack Black or Peter Raven, for example). The setting here is a technological Edwardiana where airships are the current form of transport. Matt Cruse, introduced in Airborn is regarded as a hero for getting rid of a notorious Air Pirate, and he's spent his reward money on a course at the Air Academy so he can captain his own ship. After a training flight, Matt is unwittingly the only one in possession of the coordinates of a mysterious drifting ship from 40 years before.

The story then plots a course between a treasure hunt, mid-air hot pursuit, a ship of ghosts, and a love quadrangle. It manages it quite well, although the static nature of the airship interior settings result in a story that has to be character-led. To his credit, the author manages to give life to even minor characters such as Slater's crew, and in particular to the eccentric (dead) genius Grunel. (See Michael Molloy's The House on Falling-Star Hill for a similarly vivid inventor type).

Particularly of note is the delicate relationship between the poor, brave and insecure Matt and the rich, self-confident but friendly Kate. Matt is very conscious of the difference in their positions and feels lost every time Kate appears to be friendly with another man, especially one who appears to have the glamour and wealth which Matt doesn't. Kate, while not averse to generating a little jealousy, is faithful to Matt, and the banter between then when they're fetching water or hiding together in Grunel's coffin (!) is both amusing and charming.

There are no real surprises in the end: the good guys get their rewards; the bad guys get their comeuppance; the mystery of the Hyperion is revealed (or at least explained). The main characters have something of a character arc, even if it's a fairly predictable one. If you want a straightforward adventure story with a bit of young romance, read on.

Themes:

  • Airship technology
  • Corporations controlling discoveries to suit their needs

I hoped Kate was noticing Hal's oafish behaviour. Surely she must have realized by now that, depsite all his suavity, Hal did not share her enthusiasm for higher learning. In his current mood he was likely to say the Mona Lisa would make a nice dartboard.

But I also knew he was right. We could not take the machine with us, so there was little point wasting time puzzling over it. We were searching for something cold and unimaginative: gold. I turned to follow him, then stopped, peering back at the long bank of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Thursday 18th January 2007