RogerBW's Blog

Airborn, Kenneth Oppel 23 July 2020

2004 young adult steampunk fantasy, first of a trilogy. Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora.

It's an odd world, this, a strange combination of real and invention. The author's biography mentions being inspired by the idea "What if airplanes hadn't been invented?", but there are miracles here too: the gas bags are still goldbeater's skin, but they're filled with "hydrium", which occurs naturally, and is even lighter than hydrogen. That's all fair enough, the sort of miracle I can take for granted in a fantasy… but then Oppel tells us it has a distinct smell of ripe mangoes.

At which point I say hang on just a moment, a complex smell like that means complex organic chemicals, esters and furanones and lactones, great big molecules that are not consonant with a very light gas.

But I'm the sort of annoying reader who checks things that seem to bear on the real world. I read a passage like

over there, the Arctic Star headed over the top of the world with scheduled stops in Yellowknife, Godthab, Sankt-Peterburg and Arkhangel.

and I plot it out to see if it makes sense. Which actually it just about does; I'd have thought St Petersburg would come last, but swapping the last two stops adds distance to the route.


Though we're starting in "Lionsgate City" and nobody ever says where that is. Somewhere in North America, from context, but the name of the country goes unmentioned, even though we have Paris and London and Constantinople and Sydney and other real places. And the great oceans are the Atlanticus and the Pacificus…

It's something like the turn of the 20th century; there's a silent film from the Lumière Triplets. But the story is largely disconnected from the world: there are sky pirates! Uncharted islands! Shipwrecks! Ornithopters! Girls!

Her hair looked redder in the full light. Maybe it was just the red bows—girls knew how to do these things.

There's also, which nearly caused me to fling the book away, a daring escape using an improvised hydrium balloon… to float to the top of a cave filled with hydrium. Er, the buoyancy, she does not work like that.

It's wholesome fun, even if the bones of message are a bit close to the surface (rich kids got problems too); and there's a fair bit of "I win because I know this large lump of technology better than you do", which is a mode of conflict I enjoy (see also Elizabeth Moon's Once a Hero).

But it's desperately slight, and the characters are thoroughly predictable. Unless you particularly like reading about airships (as I do), I can't really recommend it.

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