Kenneth Oppel, Silverwing (Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon & Schuster, 1997)
Kenneth Oppel, Sunwing (Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

Millions of years ago, the birds and the beasts engaged in a great war. At the end of the conflict, both sides decided to punish the bats for refusing to join them. The bats were consigned to the night, under the law that said they could never see the sun. The owls are the enforcers of the law, and so have become the chief enemies of the bats. The bats have a legend, however, that the goddess Nocturna made a promise that someday the bats will bask in the light of day again. Many believe that time is approaching.

Silverwing and Sunwing relate the adventures of Shade, a young Silverwing bat, as he embarks on his first migration and encounters more adventures than any young bat has a right to expect. In large part, he brings them on himself: Shade, a runt, is not a strong flier or the best hunter among his peers - that is left to Chinook, a much larger, stronger newborn, who is also a little bit of a bully. Shade, however, is one of those youngsters who asks too many questions and, when no one else will answer them, decides to find out the answers for himself. In this adventure, that characteristic results in the destruction of the colony's nesting tree -- the result of Shade and Chinook lingering out side to see the sunrise, a breach swiftly punished by the owls -- Shade being blown out to sea in a storm, captured by pigeons, captured by rats, and pursued by a couple of cannibal vampire bats intent on wreaking havoc in the colony's hidden winter haven, Hibernaculum -- particularly Goth, a prince of the vampires, who worships the god of the Underworld, the bat-god Cama Zotz. And that's just in the first volume.

Kenneth Oppel has built an intriguing fantasy world, with a mythology and history of its own, from the lives of the creatures of forest and jungle. Interestingly enough, many of the good guys are creatures that people don't especially treasure -- bats, rats and owls. But then, some of the bad guys are bats and owls, too, and the good guys aren't always that appealing. Missing are the standard characters of "animal" fantasy -- no bears, foxes, wolves, or badgers appear as characters. In spite of repeated demonstrations of affection among the bats, there is little here that could be called "cuddly."

A key element in Shade's adventure is his search for his father, Cassiel, who was banded by humans and later disappeared. Most of the colony assumes that Cassiel is dead, but Shade learns from the mystical Zephyr, an albino bat who can hear the past and future and whom Shade and his companion Marina meet on their journey, that Cassiel is still alive and that he and Shade will meet.

This story abounds in mysteries, the foremost being the role of humans. Humans capture bats and put bands on their wings, which become a source of mystical awe to the bats, although different groups see them differently: Marina, whom Shade meets when blown out to an island in the ocean by a storm, was ostracized by her colony because the bands were believed to be evil, while among Shade's people, they are considered a sign of Nocturna's Promise. The real role of the humans in the lives of bats and other creatures becomes chillingly apparent in Sunwing, when Shade and his companions are lured into what seems to be Paradise, but is really a trap. For Shade, the most important thing is to find his father, who disappeared while the colony was at Hibernaculum during the last hibernation. Like Shade, Cassiel was inquisitive and foolhardy, and the bats consider that he paid the price.

Oppel's construction of his universe is so straightforward and so soundly based in the "real world" that it almost jars when the bats stop behaving like bats and go off into fantasy -- not in the obvious ways of myths and legends, but in small things, such as the romantic interest between Shade and Marina, who is of a different species. (An aside: there is an obvoius debt to Richard Adams' Watership Down here, not only in the use of legends and stories, but in some of the events -- Shade and Marina, for example, meet a group of banded bats for whom the bands have become an object of religious fanatacism, and the conflict between Shade and his allies and Goth and the vampires is a good match for the conflict between Hazel and Woundwort. There are other parallels, which is not to fault Oppel at all -- one can hardly follow a better example.)

On the whole, this is a rousing adventure for young readers, aged eight and up, although those shopping for a young person's reading material may want to consider the "ick" factor -- there is a fair amount of gore, not gratuitous, but sometimes graphic. The books do, however, point out quite effectively that one can be a hero without being big and strong.

[Robert Tilendis]