Kenneth Oppel, Airborn (Eos, 2004)
The story told in Airborn has one giant problem: it is told in the wrong medium.
Our hero, Matt Cruse, is a mate aboard the Aurora, a vessel crossing the Pacific Ocean. As the book begins, Cruse is attending his duty on the night watch from the ship's forward crow's nest, when he spots another vessel foundering ahead. After a daring rescue, the other craft's single passenger an old man, near death asks Matt if he saw "them," and refers to "beautiful creatures" before dying.
A year later, beautiful young Kate de Vries comes aboard the Aurora, and Mr. Cruse soon learns that she is the granddaughter of the old man from that fateful night, and that she is intent on proving his story true and that there really are magnificent creatures to be found in the uncharted expanses of the Pacific. They go on to share all manner of adventures on the way, and true to form, this is a book that has it all: exotic locales, mysterious creatures, escapes from certain death, a spectacular shipwreck upon an uncharted island, brushes with death, nefarious pirates, a "Steady as she goes, if you please!" kind of Captain, a rich young rival for the young lady's affections, a strong-willed young woman constantly under the eye of her doting chaperone, and the plucky cabin boy who must dig deep into his own soul to not only do what is right but to live up to the example of his late, lamented father.
That description probably makes Airborn sound like a story you've seen or read a hundred times, and in a way, that's exactly what it is. There aren't too many blatant surprises in the general direction of Kenneth Oppel's story, and pretty much everything you'd expect to happen at some point actually does, in fact, happen; but the way these things happen is often rather delightful or even surprising (such as one particular escape that hinges on the fact that a particular character has elected that day to wear a certain pair of pants). The BIG surprise of this book, though, lies in the setting for the Pacific-crossing vessel Aurora is not an ocean liner, but a 900-foot-long airship.
Hence the title Airborn.
The best thing about this book, by far, is the way Oppel has realized his setting. Somehow Oppel has genuinely managed to convey what it would be like to serve aboard a great airship, and there's a palpable feeling of flight here. Oppel peppers his descriptions with genuine-sounding details, such as the heaviness one feels in one's heels when standing aboard an airship as it begins to climb, that made me feel as though his research for this book actually included flying in an airship like the Hindenberg. (The only false note here is in his positing of a fictional substance, "hydrium," as the gas used in the airships, which I would accept if not for Oppel's added clause that hydrium is even lighter than hydrogen, which I'm pretty sure is simply not physically possible.) All of the details in this book are incredibly vivid, and Oppel's writing is so strong in the action sequences that I was always able to envision exactly what was going on.
And this brings me to my initial comment: Oppel's gift for conveying the visual element of the story is so strong that I think this book shouldn't have been a book at all. At the very least, it should have been a graphic novel, with panoramic art by, say, Paul Gulacy or Colleen Doran but even better would be a motion picture. This is exactly the kind of story I would expect from a really well-made summertime adventure matinee, right down to the score by John Williams. No, this isn't actually a criticism of Oppel's novel, but surely there HAS to be a Hollywood producer somewhere who wants to do a movie that's original and fun, as opposed to remaking the same old tired TV shows and movies that were already done well thirty years ago. Airborn tells a wonderfully rollicking adventure. Anyhow, whether it's in movies or in print, Oppel has crafted a thrilling page-turner here, and I for one hope that the obvious sequel threads left open at the end are followed up. I can't believe that Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries's adventures end with the last page of this book.
So, if you want a "beach" read of the best kind, check out Airborn. And don't be surprised if, while reading it on the beach, you find yourself looking up into the sky for the silver airships that just have to be there or for something else, perhaps. I won't tell you what. It would spoil the novel.