The Airborn trilogy by Kenneth Oppel

Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel.  HarperCollins, 2004, 355 pp.  Skybreaker (2007); Starclimber (2009).


Reading Level: Middle grade, ages 10-12

Recommended for: Ages 10-12 and up

One-line Summary: Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber offer fun and adventure in an alternative late-Victorian world for middle grade readers.

Some people say it makes them lonesome when they stare up at the night sky.  I can’t imagine why.  There’s no shortage of company.  By now there’s not a constellation I can’t name.  Orion.  Lupus.  Serpens.  Hercules.  Draco.  My father taught me all of their stories.  So when I look up I see a galaxy of adventures and heroes and villains all jostling together and trying to outdo one another, and sometimes I want to tell them not to distract me with their chatter.  There’re the planets to look at too, depending on the time of year: Venus.  Mercury.  Mars.  And don’t forget Old Man Moon.  I know every crease and pockmark on that face of his.

We’re in our solar system, but hanging from the familiar stars is an alternate world in which dirigible travel dominates flight and propelled aircraft are hardly in the picture.  It’s an enchanting picture: great balloons held aloft by hydrium gas (which smells faintly of mangoes, in case you ever wondered).  Silently they sail the sky, ghostly galleons silvered by moonlight, carrying passengers from Paris to Constantinople to Lionsgate City (Canada), home of our hero Matt Cruise and located somewhere along the west coat of Canada.  One night while standing watch in the crows nest of Aurora, Matt is able to aid in the rescue of a hot-air balloon pilot who babbles in delirium of wonderful flying creatures before breathing his last.  A year later, directly after takeoff, the Aurora must stall in order to take on late passengers arriving via ornithopter.  They are young Kate DeVries and her chaperone, the latter snooty and demanding, the former quick and intelligent, with no end of spunk as we shall see.  Kate is the granddaughter of that doomed pilot rescued by the crew of Aurora, and she is determined to carry on his quest to find the mysterious winged creatures.

This sets up a first-class adventure, with the improbably capable young hero and the resourceful lass and the colorful-yet-truly-lethal villain.  Airborn is unabashedly old-fashioned in its structure, with a vehicle so lovingly crafted we can see its feathering air cells and hear its pulsing passage through the sky.  Much of the action hinges on understanding the innards of a dirigible well enough to follow our heroes and villains as they chase each other from stern to bow.  The author handles this so deftly you can just see the pirates rappelling down from their craft to the surface of Aurora in the starry night.  On the ground the pace is bit clunkier, but the last 50 pages, by land and air, go like lightning.  Matt and Kate are likeable heroes and their dialogue zings.  Supporting roles are rather stock-ish: brave captain, wisecracking sidekick, picky chef, sheepish passengers herded this way and that by the plot.  Szpirglas the pirate chief is one of the great villains of contemporary children’s literature, and he meets a suitable end.

Skybreaker takes place two years later, with Kate studying to be the world’s foremost expert on high-altitude life forms and Matt studying at the flight academy.  He and Kate join an expedition to track down the legendary ghost ship Hyperion, on a sleek new aircraft piloted by a handsome officer who becomes a rival for Kate’s affections.  The mushy stuff doesn’t overcome the action, but takes the novel into YA territory.  By Starclimber, 19-year-old Matt is ready to offer Kate a ring, only to find she’s engaged to another man!  But that doesn’t stop them from joining forces again, this time on a vessel that literally climbs its way into outer space, boldly going where no man has gone before.   And, as you might imagine, true love triumphs.  Starclimber may be the weakest of the three for pacing and plot, but by this time the reader should care enough about Matt and Kate that it doesn’t matter.

Cautions: Worldview (some references to evolution)

Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.75
  • Artistic value: 4

*Discussion Question:

  • Airborn imagines a future where air travel is dominated by lighter-than-air machines, not propulsion.  Might this be a possibility?  Did it seem a possibility at one time?  What happened?
  • Is science determined? That is, does one discovery necessarily lead to another, or can scientific discovery take different paths and come up with different solutions (within God’s providence)?
  • Szpirglas is a villain, but does he have some positive traits?  What are they?
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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Janice DeLong on October 29, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you for your Christian perspective. A former college colleague and I are co-authoring a series of books for adults to assist in their guidance of their children or students, or children/students and the discovery of your website is encouraging. Blessings and Joy in the journey.

  2. Kristen Godbold on April 25, 2020 at 7:59 am

    As a busy homeschooling mom of a crew of voracious readers, I cannot keep up with all the books my children want to read. Thank you so much for this review from a Christian perspective.

  3. Noel Green on July 14, 2020 at 2:24 am

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  4. Chris Suath on April 14, 2021 at 7:41 am

    Sorry, but I am a little disappointed I am trying to find a higher then grade level book for my seventh grader and all you give are comments.

    • Janie Cheaney on April 14, 2021 at 8:25 am

      Not sure what you want here, Chris. The review does indicate appropriate age/grade levels.

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