Author: Kenneth Oppel

Publication: 2005, HarperCollins

Pages: 368

Overall Rating:  bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]                       

Rating for Action: bth_4-star-rating_zps38e772a0[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 9-12

Brief Summary:  Matt Cruz is a cabin boy aboard the Aurora, a luxury airship in this steampunk novel where an ultra-light gas known as hydrium has made zeppelins one of the most common forms of long-distance transportation.  Matt loves working aboard the Aurora.  He was born in an airship, his father died working aboard the Aurora, and the only time he feels able to escape the loss of this father is when he’s flying.

The Aurora is en route to Australia when a last minute passenger hops aboard.  Miss Kate Devries is a fiery, independent girl who is determined to investigate her grand-father’s claim that just before he died he had discovered a species of large flying mammals on an island in the Pacificus.  It just how happens that Matt was the person who first saw her grandfather’s hot air balloon and helped rescue him.  When Kate discovers this, this quickly pulls Matt into her scheme.

However, their plans are derailed when the ship is attacked by pirates.  Their hull is breached, venting vast quantities of precious hydrium, and the Aurora almost crashes into the sea.  But by some miracle they manage to reach an island.  And it doesn’t take long for Kate and Matt to discover that it is the very same island where her grandfather made his incredible discovery.  Together, they set out to search for the mysterious cloud cat.  But what they find the process is far more dangerous, and it will take every last bit of Matt’s courage and flying skills to escape death and save his beloved ship.

Age of Main Character: 15

What I Liked the Most: Oppel’s descriptions of the Aurora spill off the page in vivid detail, filled with the all love that Matt clearly has for his ship.  It was clear to me that Oppel had really done his homework, and had spent a lot of time figuring out how an airship like the Aurora would really look.   And wasn’t not simply the descriptions themselves that caught  my attention, it was how Oppel brought the ship to life as Matt moved through her – from the crow’s nest to the keel catwalk, all the way to the luxurious state rooms of the first class passengers.

Oppel also manages to quite skillfully create a climax in which Matt, Kate, and another teen are left on their own to defeat the pirates.  That was no mean feat on a ship full of adults, but Oppel pulls it off quite convincingly.  And the way that he had Matt and Kate dispatch the various pirates was perfect –playing to their strengths and not relying on some unrealistic scenario where Matt and Kate single handedly take down a bunch of heavily armed pirates in a knock-down, drag-out fight.

What I Liked the Least: At first, I was as fascinated by the cloud cats as Kate and Matt, but as time went on my sense of fascination diminished.  In scene after scene, the two of them keep going back to the cloud cats – disappearing into the forest again and again to track them down, collect bones, and ultimately get a photo of a living cat.  The quest simply went on too long for what was, in the end, something of a side plot to their struggle with the pirates.  So well the cloud cats were interesting, and clearly played a central role in forging the relationship between Kate and Matt, I thought the story line went on far longer than it should have.

I also had some problems with the relationship between Kate and Matt.  Specifically, I started getting tired of the way Kate treated him.  She’s focused so intently on her own desire to gather indisputable proof of the cloud cat’s existence that she completely loses sight of Matt’s needs and responsibilities – and he takes it.  I know that in the end she changes, and that change is an important part of the story, but I thought that –as with the whole story line of the cloud cats – her self-centered attitude towards Matt went on for too long to the point where, for a while, I really didn’t like her.

How Good was the Action?  Oppel does an excellent job with his action scenes, carefully balancing blow-by-blow details with more narrative descriptions and injecting Matt’s emotions into the scenes so that we can feel his dread and the pounding of his heart.  My only real complaint is that there are long sections in the middle of the book with very little action.  This is when Matt and Kate are sneaking off to search for the cloud cat.  It’s an interesting story line that has important ramifications on the relationship between Matt and Kate and on the fate of the Aurora, but it simply went on too long and provided too big of a gap between the action that leads to their crash on the island and their next encounter with the pirates.

How Engaging was the Story? For the most part, Oppel did an excellent job of holding my attention.  The characters are all very well drawn.  I really enjoyed getting inside Matt’s head, and for the most part I liked Kate’s fiery independence and enjoyed her interactions with Matt.  My only problems, as I’ve already made clear, centered on the cloud cat story line.  It went on too long, and ultimately began to drag.  And the more Kate got caught up in the search for the cloud cat, the less I liked her character and the less I like Matt for putting up with her.  But once that story line came to an end and they ran into the pirates again, the story really picked up and Matt and Kate’s relationship returned to more of an equal footing.   

Overall Assessment: Oppel has created a fascinating world, in some ways very much like our own at the dawn of the 29th century, tweaked in small but vital ways by the presence of airships.  He’s managed to weave together a tale of science and philosophy with just the right amount of action and a touch of romance.  While it does drag a bit in the middle, overall this remains a taut story, brimming with finely drawn characters.

Profanity: None

Sex: None, though there is a kiss and a bit of mild flirtation between Matt and Kate.

Violence: Some.  A couple of people get shot or fall to their deaths from the airship and someone is mauled by a cloud cat.  But none of the violence is particularly graphic.

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