Thursday, January 19, 2006

Exploring the Skies: Kenneth Oppel, Skybreaker. Hodder Children's Books, 2005.

In Airborn Matt Cruse and his friend Kate discovered an island of pirates, Matt Cruse made enough money to enrol as a Cadet in the Airship Academy in Paris and Kate persuaded her parents to let her study Natural History--heavily chaperoned--to the Sorbonne.

In Skybreaker Oppel continues their adventures in this alternate world where zeppelins and gaseous squid plough the skies, the Sherpas are the world's best high altitude wind-navigators and an insane genius has built a zeppelin to live in and has discovered the secret to creating hydrogen from water. The mood is of Robert A .Heinlein crossed with Colin Greenland at his most whimsical.

Matt Cruse and Kate set out in search of the missing zeppelin on the basis of a single sighting. To get there they will have to fly higher than anyone has done before, risking altitude sickness and decompression. They have Matt's co-ordinates, Kate's Money, a rascally ship owner called Hal Slater and the gypsy Nadira with the key to the ship's vaults. One of the elements that makes the book so successful is that all four have distinct motivations for their journey. Sal wants to be wealthy.Nadira just wants enough money to start a business. Matt needs money to get through the Academy and support his mother and sisters. Kate wants the taxidermy collection on the ship.

The other key element is that each character is fascinated with a different aspect of their world, and through their distinct perspectives Oppel builds his world. Matt enthuses about the dirigibles and in getting an engine to work shows us one corner of the world. Kate reveals that this is a world where the Yeti really exists and snowcats inhabit the upper skys. Nadira introduces us to a world where Roma are the daredevil construction workers on sky scrapers across the world. The world of Skybreaker accretes in a proper sf-nal way.

To beat yet one more of my many drums, one of the reasons the book is so satisfying is that anything Oppel needs for his denoument is planted early; the reader has the opportunity to be as smart as the characters. The book is a romp, and it is an intelligent romp. It's a rare quality in this genre


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