Airborn

7.28.2010




Airborn
by Kenneth Oppel
My overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars

The story:  Fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse works as a cabin boy on a ship--but not just any ship.  Sailing through skies instead of oceans, the elegant, passenger airship Aurora is kept afloat with hydrium gas, and is operated by a crew and captain, all dedicated to their jobs.  Resourceful and clever, Matt is looking forward to promotion and a successful career...until a newcomer and an airship of pirates threaten to make that impossible.  He also meets the beautiful Kate de Vries, who is determined to find out what were those mysterious flying creatures that her grandfather saw from a hot air balloon.

My thoughts:  I first heard about this book on Amazon.com; it sounded good, and it was compared to Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne's books, so I thought I'd read it.       

Oppel has an excellent writing style for YA books.  The book seems to be a combination of the Victorian/Edwardian era and the 21st-century; overall, the writing style is quite readable, but not dumbed-down or too 21st century.  Based on the story itself, it's not clear in what era, exactly, this book takes place; but I really liked the historical setting, as well as reading about life on the Aurora (reminiscent of Royal Navy fiction).

Secondly, I think it's great that there are still authors like Oppel who write these kind of adventure stories.  Compared with its contemporaries, Airborn is probably one of the best books for teens; it kind of reminds me of the Horatio Hornblower series.  It's not perfect (more on that later), but we could certainly use more books in the classic adventure/sci-fi vein.

The characters were pretty good.  Matt Cruse, the narrator, is in some ways an average guy, and in other ways quite extraordinary.  He stays on the Aurora, even just as a cabin boy, because it was the same ship his father worked on, up until his death; and Matt feels closer to his father on the airship than anywhere else.  He hates being on land; it makes him feel claustrophobic, and he loses that sense of escapism that he has when he's flying.  His love for his airship and his fear of land is something that he often struggles with, and it makes him an interesting character.

The Aurora's captain, Captain Walken, is a lot like Captain Pellew from the Hornblower series--he's concentrated on doing his duty and doing the right thing.  Most of the crew members didn't get much "screen time", but a few of them were memorable, such as the cook, Chef Vlad.  I didn't particularly like Kate.  I guess she was supposed to be a strong heroine, but she seemed cliche to me--pretty, intelligent, disrespectful, rebellious, and feminist.  She's kind of spoiled, so maybe that explains some of her character traits.  But it's too bad she wasn't more original or likeable.  Then there's Szpirglas, the pirate captain.  He was also slightly cliche--in contrast to everyone else, he seemed straight out of the 18th or 19th centuries, even down to the boots.  Now, while that is what comes to mind when you think of a pirate, I can't help but think that Szpirglas would've been more interesting, and maybe creepier, if he was more 20th-century, like everyone else. 

I won't give any spoilers about the "flying creatures"...all I'll say is that that part of the plot got kind of boring after a while, but maybe it's just me.  The pirate subplot and the descriptions of the airship were much more interesting; and in the last 200 pages, the plot got really exciting.  Before I read the book, I knew next to nothing about airships; but I learned a few things, and the author even provides a sketch/map of the Aurora for the reader to refer to.  Speaking of pirates, I was glad to see that the pirates in this book are truly portrayed as villains; which, needless to say, is unusual these days.  Not only did the author take this point of view, but he made it convincing. 

Now for the things I didn't like.  The book is rather politically correct, which doesn't fit the era it seems to take place in.  Also, there were a few awkward scenes, mostly because of the romantic subplot.  Kate, as aforementioned, was quite annoying at times, and not always a good role model.  Occasionally there were some bad words, but not a lot. All things considered, I'd say Airborn is more for ages 12+, than for kids.

In summary, it's a good introduction to classic sci-fi/adventure stories, or just a fun read if you already like the genre or want to try something different.

You know you've been reading too much Moby-Dick when...

7.07.2010

 ...you glance at a shopping list and, for a split second, read one of the headings as "Whale Fishery".  What it actually says is "Whole Foods".

Years ago, when I first tried to read this book (and stopped halfway), I thought it was the most boring classic I'd ever read, as well as one of the hardest books I'd ever read.  The plot is pretty simple--an insane captain sets out to get revenge on a whale.  The book, however, happens to be over 600 pages long.  It alternates between telling the story and talking about whales, with whole chapters that read like encyclopedia articles with author's commentary.

Surprisingly enough, though, this time I like it.

The writing style is very interesting.  It's first-person, but the narrator is able to tell the reader practically as much as third-person narration does.  Sometimes the narrator tells the story like any other author, with even comic relief.  Other times he goes on for chapters about whaling, and whales, and his thoughts.  And, every time he changes the subject, he usually starts a new chapter.

The narrator himself is really annoying.  I mean REALLY annoying.  Why is it that, with all his self-righteousness of being fair and unbiased, he would still seem to be prejudiced towards certain kinds of people?  I especially disliked his attempted ironic comparison of the Quakers' pacifism and their whale-hunting.  I think it goes without saying that there's a big difference between killing a person and killing a whale. 

As far as Captain Ahab goes, the book brings out his sanity more than the movie version does.  There was, for example, an interesting subplot that shows how scheming he could be; I also get the impression that, before he lost his leg, he seemed to be a pretty normal person.  I'm going to have to watch the film again, but these seem to be a couple of the differences between the book and the film.

In any case, Starbuck is my favourite character. He is a rational character amidst "the madness of crowds".  "'Vengeance on a dumb brute!' cried Starbuck, 'that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!'"

Now, I've seen the 1956 version (a good movie, by the way), so I know how the story is going to end.  But the thing about Moby-Dick, is that it's almost like a mystery.  In some ways, it's more suspenseful than a mystery, because it's not a story I can completely understand.  And it's not like Lord of the Rings, either, where you can keep finding the answers to your questions--I don't know if that's possible with Moby-Dick.  It's just really complex...an extraordinary book which tries to explain every little thing to the reader, and yet leaves me with nearly as many questions as before.


Something which I only learned recently is that a true-story whaling accident was part of the inspiration for writing Moby-Dick, and it just so happened that I had already read a book about it.  The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex is an eyewitness narrative written in 1821 by Owen Chase, who was the second in command.  It's a must-read in my opinion, an amazing survival story.  Even if I hadn't ended up reading Moby-Dick later on, I was glad to have read Chase's book first. I always prefer reading a book written by somebody who was actually there; and these days, whaling stories may not be as glamorous as pirates and Royal Navy books, but they're nonetheless a fascinating part of American history.