Kenneth Oppel’s Matt Cruse trilogy: Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber

Pirates, dirigibles, alien zoology, and steampunk space flight. Brave cabin boys with a talent for aerial navigation, spunky girls with a penchant for zoology, strange creatures the likes of which zoologists cannot comprehend. There’s something here for anyone who likes fast paced science fiction.

As Airborn begins, Our Protagonist, cabin boy Matt Cruse, is about to come off watch and head down to the kitchens to cadge some of the baked goods they’re preparing for the passengers on the liner Aurora.This is not to be quite yet: he spots a balloon approaching, which does not respond to the Aurora‘s hail; the Aurora crew quickly rigs a cable drop and sends Cruse over, as the youngest (and therefore lightest) crew member and the one with the steadiest head for heights, to rig a grappling harness for the gondola–this is pulled aboard the dirigible just as it tears away from the balloon supporting it. Unfortunately, the old man does not survive the night, though he mumbles a few ambiguous broken phrases about something he’s seen.

The story resumes a year later, with the Aurora on its way to Sydney. Two late passengers catch up in an ornithopter, and hail the ship for permission to land; these prove to be the granddaughter of the man whom Cruse rescued in the prologue, and her chaperone. Kate, a budding zoologist following in her grandfather’s footsteps, is determined to find out just what her grandfather saw in his dying hours, and to prove his vision a reality and no mere deathbed hallucination. (Well, OK: deathgondola hallucination.)

One pirate attack and subsequent dirigible crash landing on the tropical island where the pirates’ secret hideout is concealed, not to mention the home of the flying creatures which Kate’s grandfather saw, the two are off to a rattling adventure, the likes of which might only be found otherwise in a collaboration of Robert Louis Stevenson with Jules Verne for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The pirates defeated and the dirigible repaired, the crew limps safely home and Cruse, his finances settled by his share of the pirates’ treasure, heads off for the Air Academy, which happens to be conveniently right across the Seine from where the fiery and redoubtable Kate is settling in to expand on her discovery of the “cloud cats”, half panther, half bat.

Book two, Skybreaker picks up during Cruse’s internship on the badly mismanaged freighter dirigible Flotsam–this practical experience is somewhat redundant for Our Protagonist, who has served for three years aboard another dirigible prior to entering the academy, but such are the requirements of formal education. Things pick up when the captain spots the phantom of the airways, the long-missing dirigible Hyperion,long thought vanished along with its wealthy owner-captain and his plans for a self-supporting (both physically and economically) sky city. The Flotsam attempts to pursue and capture the Hyperion but fails, due to their lack of pressurization…and the plot is off.

Kate and Matt head off together, along with a mysterious gypsy and a wealthy airman, to seek out the Hyperion; they succeed in finding it, despite unstaffed dirigibles having a tendency to do things like drift randomly, and explore it.

While technically the ansible device–a term coined by Ursula LeGuin–is used strictly in communications, the concept of a workaround to the laws of science and nature as we understand them is a common one; how to communicate in a usefully speedy manner between star systems is one future society will need to solve, as is how to travel between those star systems is another one. Space travel in steampunk is a whole ‘nother technologic issue: how do you even get outside the earth’s atmosphere if you haven’t got such conveniences as heavier-than-air flying devices, much less the capacity to refine petroleum into a sufficiently combustible material? Well, you build a “sky hook”, aka a space elevator, of course!

This is the basic concept for book three: the intrepid crew of astralnauts, including Mr. Cruse, and the Captain of the Aurora, and the passengers–a floridly pompous old school zoologist and Kate herself eager to prove herself to him, a grumpy photographer, and of course Chef Vlad Herzog, producing under ever more adverse circumstances his culinary marvels. In this case, their goal is to ascend the sky hook, document what’s above the Earth’s atmosphere and return, though there are a few hitches: the rocket has not drawn the cable to its full height, resulting in its not achieving proper geosynchronous orbit (and necessitating repairs), space barnacles corroded the cable rendering their descent impossible and cutting off communication with Earth (and necessitating converting the capsule into a rudimentary space shuttle cum balloon for safe landing on Earth), and of course more strange creatures, resembling baleen whales on earth.

All the important characters survive, and Matt and Kate finally realize that they are meant for each other, something the other people aboard the skyhook (and most of the savvy readers) realized since page one.
I appreciate the character of Kate very much. It’s always nice to see strong female characters; while Kate is more girly-girl than, say, Katniss, Kate’s both brave and intellectual, facing terrifying situations without a qualm while maintaining a calm interest in the scientific research she came to do. She’s a well-rounded character, at least by this trilogy’s standards, on a par with Matt. While she’s not terribly subtly drawn, neither are the rest of the characters–this is a comic steampunk space opera for young teenagers, after all–though I particularly like her doubts about marriage. There weren’t too many other options for women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; employment options for the lower classes were pretty grim and occupations for the wealthy were stultifyingly unrewarding….but marriage without love was a velvet-barred prison.

This is an alternate history/steampunk world. Although “when” the novels are set is rendered at least somewhat meaningless by the world’s differing historical events and political structure, I’d place it in the equivalent of our Edwardian period. Canada is the pre-eminent country in the North American continent, England less powerful than it would have been in the equivalent time on our world. Women suffragettes are just beginning the struggle for the vote. Air travel is by lighter-than-air dirigibles for long distances or with large payloads, while the ornithopter is used for private individual travel, much as private jets are today in our timeline, and ballooning is a gentlemen’s pursuit rather than a curiosity. While major cities would be familiar to us–Paris has its Eiffel Tower and Sydney is a major port in the Southern Hemisphere–geographic terminology is a trifle skewed, and botany, chemistry and zoology would give our scientists pause, to say the least. The dirigibles are given lift by “hydrium”, a natural substance lighter than hydrogen but completely non-flammable.

This is probably closer to YA literature, based on the characters’ ages, but there’s nothing wholly inappropriate for middle-grade readers; there’s some violence–a pirate shoots an Aurora crew member point blank in book #1, among other deaths–but nothing excessively gory. The trilogy is fun, funny and a fast read; I heartily recommend them for anyone wanting adventure stories


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