I found out about Airborn while surfing around looking for contemporaries of Harry Potter to see if any books had sold anywhere near the same number. Kenneth Oppel was unknown to me, although he has been writing for some time, partly because his previous books seem to have been aimed at a younger audience. The article I found was going to replace the JK Rowling-shaped void in children’s publishing now HP was over. Oppel was the focus of the piece (it was for a Canadian site, he is Canadian, of course I’m not suggesting they were blowing their own trumpet…).

Anyway, I’ve just blasted my way through the first of (so far) two books about an alternative Victorian age where airships are the primary method of transporting goods and passengers around the globe. These aren’t the death-traps of the 30’s, filled with hydrogen, they use a totally different (and made up) gas called hydrium (which smells like mangos). Our hero, Matt Cruse, is a cabin boy aboard the luxury liner Aurora. Matt loves airships, he was born aloft, his father worked on the Aurora and he doesn’t like being on the ground. A routine trip changes when they find a balloon floating aimlessly across their shipping lane, with a man near-dead aboard. He says he’s seen things, strange creatures, but before they can find out more, he dies. Several months later and Kate de Vries takes a voyage. The dead man was her grandfather and she’s determined to find what he saw. Then the pirates come…

It’s fast paced (once you get past the initial setup, which I found entertaining anyway) and non-stop action. Kate is a strong, determined and very clever girl (and likes books, she’s not unlike Hermione, although trouble seems to follow her) and she’s not stuck to the traditions of her class, keen to break out of ‘ladylike’ pursuits she is supposed to be doing. She drags Matt along for adventure and discovery, not that he’s complaining, he likes her. It’s funny, and thrilling, inventive and exciting. It’s not particularly deep or complex, but it has plenty of twists and turns and skin-of-the-teeth escapes and I couldn’t put it down.

I admit that I am a huge airship fan, they have a romantic image for me (once you get past the combustible gas) and maybe my opinion is off because I was interested in simply reading about a story in a world where airships rule (if we could have produced helium rather than relying on hydrogen they may still be big), but I loved it. Why aren’t people writing thrilling adventure stories like this for adults too? All the exciting fiction I seem to be reading of late is, technically, aimed at kids. It’s a little Clive Cussler, only without the history, the classic cars and planes or the boats (or Clive himself showing up!).

For some reason I found it reminded me of Mortal Engines (probably the airships). Well worth a read if you like a good old-fashioned ripping yarn, already added the next book, Skybreaker, to my wishlist.

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Reviewed: 8th August 2007