20,000 Leagues Above the Sea

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Time for some good, light reading, I think.

Last year, Kenneth Oppel won the Governor General’s Award for Best Children’s Literature for his novel Airborn. The book — a swashbuckling page-turner set in a fantasy Earth (circa 1930) where massive airships are the primary means of long-distance travel — cleaned up a number of awards in the United States and the UK as well. The story has been optioned by Steven Sommers (director of The Mummy) and a film is now in pre-production. It seems that Mr. Oppel has a breakthrough hit on his hands.

Now is a good time for a sequel, to strike while the iron’s hot, as it were. But with every sequel comes questions: can the intensity of the first book be maintained by the second? Will the second build on the first, or be merely derivative? Well, Kenneth Oppel’s Skybreaker is the best kind of sequel: one that maintains the intensity of Airborn, and yet builds on its original themes and plotlines, such that one feels like an extension of the other.

At the end of Airborn, fifteen-year-old cabin boy Matt Cruse finds himself a minor celebrity as the boy who killed vicious sky pirate Vikram Szpirglas. The generous reward has paid for Matt’s two years of tuition at the Airship Academy, and has given his family some breathing room, but he’s still far from a rich man. His lack of a formal education frustrates his scholastic efforts, and he’s finding out that life is just as difficult as it has ever been.

Months later, now 16, Matt finds himself on a training tour over the Indian Ocean with the cargo ship Flotsam. He is a witness as the ship is caught in a storm’s tremendous updraft and is sent to nine-thousand feet, nearly to its doom. Recovering, the Flotsam crew spots a derelict ship floating at 20,000 feet. The sh ip is identified as the Hyperion. The news sends the crew into a tizzy: the Hyperion was lost forty years ago, and is reputed to be laden with treasure worth upwards of fifty million europas.

Eager for the payoff, the incompetent captain foolishly orders the Flotsam into a rapid ascent — in a maneouver referred to as “a homesick angel” — to try and capture this legendary lost vessel. Normal airships cannot operate safely over 10,000 feet as they tend to explode in the low pressure unless the precious gas cells are vented. Over 16,000 feet, oxygen tanks are required. It’s only through Matt’s intervention, disobeying the captain’s orders as the crew succumbs to hypoxia, that the Flotsam is turned around and their final destruction averted.

Back in Paris, Matt’s humble origins come back to haunt him as he pursues his relationship with young socialite and aspiring adventuress Kate deVries (the fifteen-year-old woman Matt shared the adventure of Airborn with). He’s nearly tossed out of the expensive restaurant he and Kate were to have lunch at. It’s only through luck that he’s able to pay the meal’s hefty bill. His sense of inadequacy in relation to Kate continues as she scoops’ Matt’s news about the rediscovery of the Hyperion. She intends to launch an expedition to claim it and she just assumes that Matt will be along for the ride. Matt doesn’t believe it can be done. At the very least, they’d need a Skybreaker — an experimental ship designed to handle the harsh environment at 20,000 feet. But Kate is undeterred, and the fact that Matt is now the only person in the world to know the last known coordinates of the Hyperion makes him a target for more unscrupulous groups out to salvage the ghost ship.

The scene is thus set for another romantically-tinged action-adventure thriller, featuring graceful airships, more sky pirates, gunplay, and a legendary lost expedition in the Antarctic. One intriguing difference between Airborn and Skybreaker is how much more mature — and human — Kate and Matt are. In Airborn, Kate deVries’ motivations for pursuing her adventure are personal: she wants to follow up her grandfather’s discoveries which led him to death just moments after Matt rescued him from his derelict balloon. Her motivation for going after the Hyperion is more selfish: the Hyperion was the last resting place of eccentric billionaire inventor Theodore Grunel, and his collection of taxidermy is reputed to be the best in the world, containing species previously unknown to science. With Kate’s own discoveries from Airborn being questioned by a skeptical scientific community, she hopes Grunel’s collection can lend her the credibility she deserves.

As for Matt, frustrations with money and class differences informs his actions. Salvaging the Hyperion and claiming its treasure would solve all his problems, and the problems of his poor family, or so he thinks. And when he misinterprets the attentions Kate gives to a dashing sky captain, he makes the rashest decision of his life and decides to charter his own ship to find the Hyperion himself, primarily to show up Kate. He’s saved from his mistake by the revelation that the Skybreaker he intends to charter is piloted by sky captain, Hal Slater, the same dashing figure that Kate was chatting up.

Kate and Matt’s less than pure motives come back to humble them later in the book. These flaws are honest and human and make our protagonists more real and likable as a result.

Captain Hal Slater of the Skybreaker Sagarmatha plays a major role, here. He is a dashing self-made man that is everything that Matt is not, and a far better match for Kate, or so a jealous Matt thinks. Throw in a sexy gypsy girl named Nadira, who comes to Matt’s rescue when rivals for the Hyperion try to kidnap him, and who has her own reasons for claiming the airship, and you have a voyage filled with mystery and delightful romantic complications.

Yes, this is a young adult novel, but that’s no reason to shy away from some adult elements. There are scenes of underage smoking and drinking, which Oppel gets away with thanks largely to the Edwardian setting, and the fact that Kate sampling of a cigar makes her ill. The sexual tension between the protagonists is tastefully done, though I have to wonder what other envelopes Mr. Oppel will push should a third novel follow Skybreaker and Airborn.

Skybreaker continues to highlight Kenneth Oppel’s light writing style and attention to detail. There are great moments of humour and wonderful turns of phrase from the narrator (the story is told in the first person by Matt Cruse). Great lines include “I’d seen happier smiles on taxidermy”; neat exchanges include “What was that moan?” / “Wind through the intake values” / “Are you lying to me?” / “As best I can, yes.” Skybreaker is almost impossible to put down, but it is also wonderful to savour. The chapters where the Sagarmatha crew boards the Hyperion over Antarctica (Oppel should have just called the ship “the Endurance” and be done with it) are exceptionally creepy.

And Kenneth Oppel can’t resist adding in more strange and wonderful creatures in his story. In Airborn it was the cloud cat. In Skybreaker we meet the aerozoan, a combination giant squid, jellyfish, electric eel that floats on the air currents. It’s a frightening creature, wonderfully introduced which complicates the plot nicely, though again Mr. Oppel challenges suspension of disbelief by simply throwing in these strange creatures out of thin air.

It all works brilliantly. There is a great mix of humour and action, some genuine scares. Oppel writes extremely well, with fascinating characters and complex villains. The world he creates is compelling, rich and marvellously detailed. You will be transported on a thrilling ride, with characters who become close friends.

Skybreaker is already moving up the bestseller charts, and should win Mr. Oppel more awards this year. With an Airborn movie in the works, and a book sequel that should build on his success in Canada, the United States and the U.K., I think we may have found the world’s next J.K. Rowling. It’s a point of pride to me that he’s Canadian. But for you, he promises thrilling ride. Read these books.


Further Reading

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