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Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel [Review]


One of the biggest issues with a trilogy is that the middle book tends to be a bridge for the first and last book, and it feels like you’re just marking time until the author produces the conclusion.  Luckily, Kenneth Oppel has avoided these pitfalls with Skybreaker, and the end result is a quest narrative that is action-packed and rich with tropes that are meaningful and relevant to young adult audiences.  But perhaps the best thing about this book is that it reminded me of why I love to read and write about literature:  The book reads like an action movie with vivid imagery and beautifully written adventure that kept me scrambling to see what was going to happen next.   In other words, this literature major was able to sit back and enjoy the ride, which is a rare pleasure in my world!

The second book in the Matt Cruse series picks up a year after the piratical adventures in Airborn, and the reader finds sixteen year-old Matt living in Paris and attending school.  Matt has been given credit for the defeat of air pirate Vikram Szpirglas and a grateful Sky Guard as rewarded him with enough money to pay for tuition to the Airship Academy and to continue to provide for his mother and little sisters while he takes time off work—the reward doesn’t make him rich, but pays the bills while he follows his dreams of someday becoming the captain of his own ship.  Matt’s love interest, Kate de Vries, has also chosen to study in Paris, but her wealthy parents are able to place her at the Sarbonne and, while the connection between the pair remains strong, Matt’s insecurity over the disparity in their wealth is becoming a much bigger issue.    

And then Matt is sent by the academy on a training mission as an assistant navigator on the airship Flotsam, and a series of events leads the crew to discover the mythical ship Hyperion, missing for over forty years and presumed lost at sea.  The Hyperion was one of the first airships built and belonged to famed inventor, Theodore Grunel, who forty years prior loaded his vessel with all his belongings and incredible wealth and then promptly vanished.  But the crew of the Flotsam finds the Hyperion floating at 20,000 feet, well above safe levels for airships, and they determine that some catastrophic fate befell the crew who died when their airship rose beyond breathable oxygen.  Despite this conclusion, the captain of the Flotsam decides to risk all to retrieve the ship and his orders and unwise attempts to achieve the necessary altitude expose his crew to lethal hypoxia, nearly killing them all.   Matt’s actions save the day, and he is able to return to his studies in France and to tell Kate about the incredible adventure he has had.

The irrepressible Kate decides that since Matt remembers the coordinates of his sighting of the Hyperion they should make an attempt at recovering the vessel; there is rumored to be an incredible collection of taxidermy on board, and the budding biologist wants it for herself.  The only problem is that there is no way for a standard airship to safely reach the necessary altitude, but there is a new class of ship, the skybreaker, that can.  While Kate works on finding a captain willing to accept this mission, Matt finds that the news of his adventures have gained him a new notoriety and he is now being followed by a variety of individuals who want the Hyperion’s coordinates, and are willing to go to great lengths to get them.  Matt discovers that he is being followed by the mysterious gypsy girl Nadira, who claims to have the key to the locks of the holds on the Hyperion. Similarly, he is invited to a meeting with a man who claims to be Matthias Grunel, grandson to Theodore.   But things are not always as they seem, and Matthias Grunel isn’t who he claims to be, while Nadira becomes the means for Matt to escape yet another scrape. 

The pair meets up with Kate, who has found a young, daring air captain willing to take the job: Hal Slater owns the sleek Sagarmatha and is keen to achieve the fame and fortune sure to accompany the recovery of the legendary ship. As the group takes to the air Matt’s insecurities begin to overwhelm him, especially when he realizes that the young, attractive Hal has set his sights on Kate.  Meanwhile, Matt begins to have feelings for Nadira, who is as beautiful and intelligent as Kate, but from a more socially similar class.  While Matt struggles with his feelings for both of these young women, he also becomes obsessed with recovering Grunel’s wealth, sure that “money [will] conjure [his] happy future like a genie’s lamp” (209), solve his problems, and help calm the “buzzing hive of covetousness” Hal inspires in him (173).  As with the first book, adventure ensues:  The mystery of Theodore Grunel’s death is far more complicated than it appears, there are new creatures to discover in the skies, and another set of air pirates that must be dealt with.      

As with the first book, it is these blended storylines that make this story such a smart and fun read:  Matt’s insecurities are real, and his feelings for Kate and Nadira reflect true teenage confusion and discovery.  The characters are complicated, and motivated to operate in ways that give them depth that sometimes feels lacking in novels written for young adults, and this is the main reason why I would strongly recommend this novel to reluctant readers, especially boys.  At times the plot seems slow and reflective, but the number of plotlines creates an intensity that is engaging and makes this book hard to put down.  Matt continues to grieve for his father, but in this book there is a far greater focus on his mother and how his actions can mean the difference between security for this woman who has already lost so much and poverty. I appreciated the verisimilitude of the characters’ actions and feelings:  Hal is charming and smooth, but also sometimes prideful and greedy; Nadira carries important secrets, and far more is riding on her success than just finding the treasure; Kate may appear to be careless, but her future depends on enough success to use as leverage against her family; and Matt has to determine who he is as person and what is important to him as he makes the transition into adulthood.     

I will reiterate from my previous review of Airborn that this story, and the other two that complete this trilogy, are also considered to be part of the Steampunk Canon.  I would have to say that I completely agree with this assessment:  There are airships and air pirates, flying machines that function like helicopters but are open to the elements, and enough brass and goggles to keep most enthusiasts of the subgenre happy.  What I enjoyed most, however, is that these elements are well-blended into the reality of the world Oppel has created.  I never felt like this book was trying to convince me that it belongs in this category, I just knew it was and couldn’t stop reading because this adventure is so well written.  Further, this text addresses many of the themes that are prevalent in Steampunk literature, and it is no accident that explorations of class, gender, protection of the environment, and a rejection of societal status quo are present in this story.  Young Matt comes to realize that education is a key component for a change in his social status, and Kate learns that, although dreams are worth fighting for, the journey is a little easier when she can connect with others in a meaningful way.  As a whole this book was a refreshing read, and I appreciate the seeming effortlessness with which it accomplishes its thematic goals.

This book is rated ages 10 and up, and I feel this is a fairly accurate rating.  There are episodes of gun and physical violence as well as violent deaths from natural causes, and these require a degree of maturity to understand.  There is limited romantic contact between Matt and Kate, as well as between Matt and Nadira, and these relationships develop in a way that is age appropriate.  Additionally, the vocabulary is simple enough to allow a YA audience to fully engage with this text, but I found that the easy vocabulary doesn’t mean a simple story; the imagery is vivid and powerful, and some of the best moments in the novel occur in the dialogue between the characters.  I highly recommend this story for children and adults who love swashbuckling adventure, but particularly for reluctant readers who need high interest material to keep them engaged with the text.


Skybreaker (Matt Cruse, #2)
 
From Goodreads:

 

A legendary ghost ship. An incredible treasure. A death-defying adventure.

Forty years ago, the airship Hyperion vanished with untold riches in its hold. Now, accompanied by heiress Kate de Vries and a mysterious gypsy, Matt Cruse is determined to recover the ship and its treasures. But 20,000 feet above the Earth's surface, pursued by those who have hunted the Hyperion since its disappearance, and surrounded by deadly high-altitude life forms, Matt and his companions soon find themselves fighting not only for the Hyperion—but for their very lives.


Airborn by Kenneth Oppel [Review]


This book of young adult fiction begins with a mystery:  The airship Aurora and young cabin boy Matthew Cruse come across the hot air balloon Endurance, seemingly abandoned to the sky.  A closer inspection reveals her fatally wounded captain, Benjamin Malloy, an old man circumnavigating the world.  Benjamin has fallen afoul of air pirates, and they are the cause of the damage to the air balloon, but there is a greater mystery to be solved:  Benjamin has seen a strange animal that looks like a blend between a bat and a large cat flying in the skies, and believes he has discovered a new species.  Although Matt is young, only fourteen, he has spent years in the sky as a cabin boy, and never seen anything like what Benjamin describes, and the old man dies shortly after, his descriptions of the ‘cloud cat’ seen as the final ravings of a dying man.

 

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What you should know before reading this book:

Airborn is the first book in the Airborn trilogy and feature the adventures of Matt Cruse, a fifteen year-old cabin boy on an airship, and Kate de Vries, a wealthy teenage passenger and eventual friend.  Although this book is rated ages 12 and up, the writing is vivid and engaging, and I believe adult readers will enjoy this work as well.  Although there is violence in this text, there is no profanity and very limited romantic expression, which makes this text ideal for young readers and classroom libraries.

   


From Goodreads:

Sailing toward dawn, and I was perched atop the crow's nest, being the ship's eyes. We were two nights out of Sydney, and there'd been no weather to speak of so far. I was keeping watch on a dark stack of nimbus clouds off to the northwest, but we were leaving it far behind, and it looked to be smooth going all the way back to Lionsgate City. Like riding a cloud. . . .

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the Aurora, a huge airship that sails hundreds of feet above the ocean, ferrying wealthy passengers from city to city. It is the life Matt's always wanted; convinced he's lighter than air, he imagines himself as buoyant as the hydrium gas that powers his ship. One night he meets a dying balloonist who speaks of beautiful creatures drifting through the skies. It is only after Matt meets the balloonist's granddaughter that he realizes that the man's ravings may, in fact, have been true, and that the creatures are completely real and utterly mysterious.

In a swashbuckling adventure reminiscent of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson, Kenneth Oppel, author of the best-selling Silverwing trilogy, creates an imagined world in which the air is populated by transcontinental voyagers, pirates, and beings never before dreamed of by the humans who sail the skies.


Worldshaker by Richard Harland [Review]


The first time I read this story I liked it, but was a little underwhelmed by what I thought was too simple a story.  This book is rated for 10-13 year-olds, and the vocabulary and chapter length has been modified to accommodate this young audience. As a result, Col seems a little too naïve, and in places the text feels ideologically heavy handed to me; if I had written my review after my first reading, I would likely not had much positive to say.  By the time I read Harland’s text I had already read Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan (a work of YA literature that has been very well received by adults) and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (an adult work that could easily be read by teens), and I felt that Worldshaker suffered in comparison.  A second reading, however, caused me to pause and reconsider my original criticism about this work; while I still believe it to be somewhat lacking the maturity level of other YA authors in this genre, I think adults will enjoy this book if they understand the concerns I have pointed out and read the text with a little patience.  Steampunk literature is well-known for exploring concerns about class, the mass-produced and non-unique nature of modern technology, and the environment, and Richard Harland’s book wastes no time establishing itself within the genre in an approachable manner that should be enjoyable for both children and adults.

 

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What you need to know before you read:

This book is a work of young adult fiction and is rated grade 6-10 by The School Library Journal.  Based on my previous experiences with YA fiction, I would rate this text as appropriate for children as young 10.  This book features parental expectationn, prejudice and the division of social classes as central themes, and parents should be prepared to  answer questions about these issues.  There is also some romantic overtones, but they are kept well within the range of what is acceptable for a work rated 10 and up.


Worldshaker 
 
From the dust jacket:

Col Porpentine understands how society works:  the elite families enjoy a comfortable life on the Upper Decks of the great juggernaut Worldshaker, while the Filthies toil Below.  And Col himself is being groomed by his grandfather, the supreme commander of the Worldshaker, to be his successor.  He has never questioned his place in the world, nor his illustrious future.

When Col meets Riff, a Filthy girl on the run, his world is turned on its head.  All his life he has been taught that Filthies are like animals, without the ability to understand language or think for themselves.  He has always known that all they are good for is serving in the Below, keeping Worldshaker running.  But Riff is nothing like he ever expected.  She is clever and quick, and despite the danger, Col is drawn to her.  Can all Filthies be like her?  If Riff is telling the truth, then everything Col has always believed is a lie.  And Col may be the only person with the power to do something about it--even if it means risking his whole future.

Richard Harland's sweeping steampunk saga of romance, privilege, and social conscience will take readers on the ride of a lifetime to an enormous moving city that is at once strange and familiar.

Steamed: A Steampunk Romance [Review]


I’m going to preface my review by saying that I read a lot of romances. I would even venture to say that I’ve read thousands since I was a teen in every genre: Historical, contemporary, paranormal, suspense, you name it. Over the years I’ve learned that my expectations necessarily need to be adjusted according to the tone and style of the text, but to say that I was disappointed by this book is an understatement, and what follows is a bit of a rant. I fully acknowledge that I am possibly being too hard on a novel that is meant to be playful and not taken too seriously, but I also believe that even the most playful literature needs to be plausible with regards to the behavior of the characters. I read because I love to take journeys in my imagination, and I don’t like it when I feel myself jarred back to reality, especially because the characters have chosen a line of action that feels inconsistent. Unfortunately, I would strongly suggest that those new to the genre avoid this one until they have read enough to be able to develop some understanding of context.  I would never suggest that a book shouldn’t be read, but I will offer my honest opinion and hope that it will be accepted in the spirit it is being offered.

 

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MacAlister, Katie.  Steamed: A Steampunk Romance.  New York: Signet. 2010. $7.99 Mass Market Paper Back.

What you should know before you read this book:

This book is a romance with mature themes and is not appropriate for teenage readers due to frequency of detailed sexual situations.  Although this book is clearly labeled as a Steampunk romance, readers who have already read Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series should be forewarned that this book is not of the same caliber and reviews have been extremely mixed.
 

 
From Goodreads:

Computer technician Jack Fletcher is no hero, despite his unwelcome reputation as one. In fact, he's just been the victim of bizarre circumstances. Like now. His sister happens to disturb one of his nanoelectromechanical system experiments, and now they aren't where they're supposed to be. In fact, they're not sure where they are when…

…they wake up to see a woman with the reddest hair Jack has ever seen-and a gun. Octavia Pye is an Aerocorps captain with a whole lot of secrets, and she's not about to see her maiden voyage ruined by stowaways. But the sparks flying between her and Jack just may cause her airship to combust and ignite a passion that will forever change the world as she knows it…

Leviathan Review


I loved this book far more than I ever thought I would. I own four other books by this author (including Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras) and, honestly, I barely made it through Uglies. I found Westerfeld’s style to be a bit cold and distant, and I couldn’t develop any affection for the characters.  I worried that I might not like Westerfeld's writing style in Leviathan and be heartbroken at not enjoying a highly recommended Steampunk text.  Another major issue that concerned me is Leviathan’s status as the first in a series.  Often, when I see that a book is headed for a series, I worry about how the story might veer into "forty days in the desert" territory: The story goes on and on in an effort to turn what should be one or two books into three, and the result is a lot of busy work for the characters and the readers. This is especially the case with young adult fiction, where some authors think simplifying some of the stronger adult themes means slowing the story to a crawl and avoiding a confrontation with deep, complicated emotions. I am pleased to say that Leviathan avoids all of these pitfalls: The first book is the world-building and character introduction that should take place in the first book of a trilogy or series, and the story deliberately and methodically builds towards future installments.

 

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Westerfeld, Scott.  Leviathan.  New York: Simon Pulse. 2009. $19.99 Hardcover.

What you should know before you read this book:

This is a work of young adult fiction so adult situations are limited.  This is not to say that adult themes are avoided; the characters in this story are complex and face issues that are difficult to resolve.  Adults will find this book a satisfying read, especially if they are interested in the Steampunk genre.

 

 
From the dust jacket:

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are warming up.  The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition.  The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry.  Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet.

Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run.  His own people have turned on him.  His title is worthless.  All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men.

Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service.  She's a brilliant airman.  But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross on the most unexpected way...taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure.  One that will change both their lives forever.
 

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