Friday, March 28, 2008

Kenneth Oppel

by Kenneth Oppel
Recommended Age: 10+

Now, when you think of bats - not baseball bats, but the little leathery winged things that flap around in the night - I'm sure you don't think to yourself, "Oooh, how cute!" But amazingly, Oppel manages to make friends between you, the reader, and his hero, a runty silverwing bat named Shade.

Shade resents being smaller and weaker than the other little baby bats and wants to prove himself. But he just keeps getting into trouble instead--first, inadvertently triggering the wrath of the owls, who burn his whole colony out of their ancient hollow tree trunk (imagine, owls armed with fire!), then getting blown off course during the colony's migration and being left behind for dead.

But after befriending a lonely brightwing bat named Marina, Shade (who thinks of himself as a bat of destiny) proves to be the hero of a very hairraising adventure in which he is threatened by pigeons, owls, wolves, rats, and (worst of all) two giant vampire bats escaped from a sort of zoo. These cannibalistic monsters want to manipulate Shade into leading them to his colony so they can feast on the hibernating silverwings all winter, then fly back to their rainforest. But Shade has some tricks up his sleeve too.

Along the way he and Marina meet an albino bat named Zephyr who tells the future...a religious cult of bats who think they are going to turn into human beings, led by Scirocco... a colony of rats where they are hindered by Prince Remus and helped by the mad, deformed Prince Romulus... and of course, they match wits and wings with two monsters with a three-foot wing span, called Goth and Throbb. And at the same time, Shade inches closer and closer to discovering the real fate of his long-lost father... to be continued in Sunwing.

It is a gripping adventure, and unless you have an absolute, clinical phobia of bats, I think you will actually grow to love Shade and his friend Marina.

by Kenneth Oppel
Recommended Age: 10+

The sequel to Kenneth Oppel's Silverwing is even bigger and more exciting than its predecessor. It picks up pretty much where Silverwing left off. Shade, the runty silverwing bat, has developed some unusual but useful skills in using sonar to draw pictures in the minds of bats and owls. In the first book these skills only went as far as reading a mental map that his mother sang to him, and occasionally decoying a threatening owl or cannibal bat with a false echo. In this book his powers develop still further to creating elaborate illusions, a sonic cloak of invisibility, and even moving solid objects physically with the force of sound. I'm not talking about just making leaves shiver. I'm talking about picking locks and lifting heavy objects!

These skills come in handy as he sets off on a quest to find his long-lost father, Cassiel, who was banded by the humans and later disappeared while apparently trying to find out something about humans. There's a lot more bat mythology in this book, continuing from Silverwing, as the good and evil bat gods (Nocturna vs. Cama Zotz) duke it out through their champions, young Shade and the still-breathing cannibal king, Goth, respectively.

There's also a love triangle between Shade, Marina, and a strapping young silverwing named Chinook, who touchingly goes from being a swaggering bully who likes nothing more than pushing Shade around, to being a devoted and trusting follower of his hero Shade. Old characters return - Frieda the bat elder, Ariel (Shade's mother), Romulus the webbed rat (who is now king of the northern rats), even from a distance the albino seer-bat, Zephyr. New characters abound - the twisted vampire-bat high priest of the Aztec bat god, the Mexican rat General, the young owl Orestes, and a number of new and interesting bat characters.

And humans come in for a drubbing in this story, in which the threat of total war between owls and bats comes to a head just as humans are using both owls and bats as living bombs in a horrible war. But the real threat is Cama Zotz, who through Goth plans to destroy the sun forever and plunge the whole world into an eternal "night of the living dead."

In all this peril, what can a little bat do - especially when he's questioning his own beliefs and bucking the opinion of everyone around him? There are exciting and perilous journeys, bizarre and interesting scenery, awful creatures (the giant insect that tries to eat Shade at one point, still makes my flesh crawl to think of it), feats of daring and friendship and interspecies understanding, moments of pure horror and gripping suspense, and of course, humor, charm, and romance too.

by Kenneth Oppel
Recommended Age: 10+

The third, and apparently last, of Kenneth Oppel's Silverwing/Sunwing novels is a pretty gripping story, but I was a little disappointed at the ending. Not because it was badly written; it just wasn't the way I wanted it to end!

This time the adventure takes place in the bat underworld, where bats go when they die. Apparently it is a literal underworld, because Shade Silverwing's newborn son, Griffin, gets sucked down an air shaft opened up by an earthquake, and finds himself alive (for the time being) in the world of the dead. And of course his father has to follow him and try to rescue his son before actual death claims him.

Unfortunately Shade's bitterest enemy, Goth the cannibalistic vampire bat, is now a resident of said Underworld and is also in on the underworld god's (Cama Zotz) bid to take over the world of the living. An opportunity to suck the life out of a living victim is rare enough, and vital to Zotz's evil plan; getting revenge on Shade is icing on the cake! So while Griffin, accompanied by his dead best friend Luna, flaps in search of a legendary tree that is a sort of gateway to the next life, and while Shade searches for him with the help of several other "pilgrim" bats, Goth is gunning for both of them with the supernatural aid of Cama Zotz.

There are also interesting obstacles along the way, such as a cactus that puts out vines that try to trap you, a cave that lulls you with a sense of well-being while the rock crystallizes around you, and a river of pure darkness - plus other problems that only a bat of Shade's remarkable talents can overcome.

Griffin is a pretty adorable character too. It's a pity that between him and his father, only one of them can live through the tale. Which is the part I wish was different... but I suppose in a way, it's the right ending.

EDIT: I have been seriously snoozing at the switch! Last year Oppel came out with a fourth adventure in this series, titled Darkwing.

by Kenneth Oppel
Recommended Age: 14+

The author of the Silverwing trilogy has brought back the age of swashbuckling in this award-winning book, soon to be a motion picture. Only the ships, sailors, and pirates in this adventure are riding, not the high seas, but the even higher skies above them.

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy on the luxury airship Aurora. In this fantasy variant of the early twentieth-century, lighter-than-air craft rule the skies. And a boy whose father died while serving on the Aurora now flies in his place. Matt was literally born to fly and feels restless and almost panicky on land. He has no fear of heights, and he dreams of rising through the ranks until one day, somehow, he might even get to fly the Aurora himself.

But first, he has to rise above the rank of cabin boy. His big chance comes after his heroic actions in saving a sick old man in a sinking hot-air balloon. But the old man dies, raving about seeing some kind of wonderful winged creatures, and the promotion dies when a rich man’s son steals the position Matt has earned. The hardest thing about resenting Bruce Lunardi is that he’s really a decent fellow. And now Matt’s ability to cope with hard-to-please, rich passengers is stretched to the limit by the willful Miss Kate DeVries and her shrill chaperone.

But Matt’s problems have scarcely begun. Kate turns out to be the granddaughter of the dying balloonist, and her determination to see the mysterious creatures her grandfather wrote about can only mean trouble for Matt. Then a band of pirates swoops down in their sleek, black airship and bring pillage, murder, and shipwreck to the beloved Aurora. And then, after a crash-landing on a desert isle, just when it looks like everything is going to be OK, a fierce animal unknown to science and a band of deadly pirates join together to make the last quarter of the book almost unbearably intense.

At the center of it all is a resourceful, daring, active young hero whose fondest dreams and worst nightmares collide in the most interesting way. The grief he is trying not to feel, the love that he has for his ship, and the frankly shocking danger threatening everything he cares about are easy to feel as the story unfolds. At times, I felt horror and sadness as I read this book, but for the most part it was an exhilirating ride. I look forward to climbing aboard the sequel, Skybreaker.

by Kenneth Oppel
Recommended Age: 14+

This sequel to Airborn finds Matt Cruse interning as a navigator’s assistant on a somewhat disreputable flying freighter. When the crew sights a legendary ghost-ship, rumored to have disappeared into the sky with loads of treasure, their attempt to salvage it nearly ends in calamity. Matt’s thanks for saving everyone’s life is to have his internship canceled and to be sent back to the airship officer academy in Paris.

Matt is no stranger to meagre rewards. His reward for bringing the Pirate Szpirglas to justice just covers his tuition and little else; and though he has an instinct for navigation, he fears that mathematics will be his undoing. So he is uncertain of his future, and insecure about his finances, all the more with his heart set on the fast-flying heiress Kate de Vries. So when Kate proposes that they do a little salvage operation of their own – armed with Matt’s memory of the ghost-ship’s last known coordinates – he eagerly accepts, hoping a little gold in his pocket will make him a more acceptable match for her.

But with partners in adventure comes romantic rivalry. On the one hand, there is the gypsy girl named Nadira whose magnetism Matt feels, even while he remains devoted to Kate. On the other hand, there is the handsome captain whose pressurized “skybreaker” is equipped for salvage operations at altitudes that would be fatal for most airship crews. Confused by his own feelings and desires, subdued by a sense of inferiority to the dashing captain and the wealthy girl, Matt focuses grimly on the prospect of treasure. But when they finally board the drifting hulk of the Hyperion – containing the floating laboratory and museum of a rich inventor and big-game hunter, long thought to have crashed – survival becomes a more immediate problem.

Survival becomes a problem, first, because of the thinness and coldness of the air 20,000 feet above Antarctica. The problem grows more serious when the Hyperion is separated from Slater’s ship due to gusting winds. The arrival of a band of deadly pirates with their own skybreaker, and their own reasons to want Hyperion and her contents all to themselves, makes survival a pretty scanty prospect indeed. And topping it all is the discovery of a high-altitude, flying, giant-squidlike creature with high-voltage tentacles and an efficient method of stalking its prey. Even human prey.

As it turns out, Matt is valuable after all. His agility, fearlessness, and physical stamina make him the key to his friends’ survival. But between a shipful of pirates, a deadly squid thing, and the inherent dangers of spending time on a shipwreck drifting at the height of Mount Everest, saving his friends may be easier than saving himself. Prepare for a memorable, Icarus-like leap into the wide blue yonder, and a fight for survival that is really, literally, like none you have experienced before. Prepare to face the question whether survival or treasure is more important. And because of the way Matt answers this question, and the meagre rewards that seem to be his lot in life, prepare for the possibility of another sequel...

EDIT: Other titles by Oppel include the five A Bad Case of books (A Bad Case of Ghosts, etc.), Cosimo Cat, The Devil's Cure, this year's releases Dusk and The King's Taster, and a children's picture book titled Emma's Emu.

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