Airborn by Kenneth Oppel – Book Review

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I have mixed thoughts about Airborn by Kenneth Oppel.  On the one hand it is a super fun rip-roaring adventure.  On the other hand, a lot of that adventuring happens because a super-rich spoiled teenage girl drags our hero into questionable circumstances.  This is another book that my son read before I did, and if I had read it before he did, I probably would have found a way to subtly discourage him reading it because of the mildly sexist theme and the obvious mental health issues of the protagonists.

Airborn takes place in an alternate history where humanity has discovered something called hydrium, an element which is lighter than hydrogen.  Intercontinental travel is primarily accomplished by use of ‘airships’, giant zeppelins which are held aloft by use of hydrium.  Apparently, the time period also allows child labor as the main character, Matt Cruse, is fourteen at the opening of the story and has already been employed as a cabin boy for two years.  He serves on the same airship his father worked on and was offered his employment when his father died on the job.

Fine.  It’s difficult to have a rip-roaring teen adventure when parents are present.  I can acknowledge that.  I’ve also decided that I’m on a keen lookout for a teen adventure, YA novel which doesn’t require parents being ‘gone’ (ie. Murdered or tragic death, trapped and unable to help child, or separated from child for some reason).  As a mom, I find it difficult to imagine my child doing the things this kid does without wanting to be close to a parental figure. 

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Airborn Kindle Cover from Amazon.
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Matt has an anxiety problem.  Ever since his father died, he suffers from depression and anxiety if he isn’t busy or if he is down on the ground for any period of time.  While it makes for a compelling obstacle to be overcome, it is just another reason to me that the child shouldn’t be working in an adult capacity.  Matt’s main squeeze, the beautiful, unrepentant, slightly older, and vivacious Kate is an aspiring scientist who takes unnecessary risks in her quest to be ‘taken seriously’ as a scientist.

Much of the book is about Matt haplessly following along with Kate’s ill-thought and dangerous adventures.  He then saves her from her poor decisions.  You know, because she’s a female and can’t make responsible decisions.  As a rich teen heiress, Kate is accompanied by a chaperone Miss Simpkins.  When Miss Simpkins expresses displeasure with the fact that Kate keeps running off with a cabin boy, the majority of the characters just kind of roll their eyes at her as a hysterical female. She is a drama queen, but her points are valid and kind of ignored. Instead the captain has the ship’s doctor prescribe medication to make her sleep a lot.

Airborn is told in the first person and narrated in Matt’s voice.  So, there are a lot of kind of funny mental quips in the book.  But this is also a coming of age story, and while there are not explicit descriptions, the protagonist Matt does make a few comments about how certain “womanly” characters make him feel uncomfortable looking at them.  This might not have even phased me if I was reading the book, but I listened to the audio book and the voice actor put an emphasis on the word which made it stick in my head when he says it.  Ugh.

Other than that, it is a fun adventure.  There are pirates, secret bases, new scientific discoveries and a smart talking snarky girl who won’t back down.  The audio book also has a full cast.  It sounded like each character has its own voice actor.  It has theme music and sound effects.  I was surprised as I’d never heard one with so much background in it. Did I like it?  Yes.  Did I like the kind of sexist ideas it may have exposed my son too?  No.  Definitely not!  He is totally comparing me to the flighty and determined Kate since he’s read it as if strong personalities in a woman is an exception and rare instead of what he’s grown up around his whole life.  Do I secretly listen to the audio book over and over again without him because it is so well done?  Totally. I wouldn’t call it delightful. But it’s definitely compelling.

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