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Literature / Airborn

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Airborn is the first book in the trilogy of the same name, written by Canadian Kenneth Oppel. The plot centers around 15-year-old cabin boy Matt Cruse, who works aboard the airship Aurora in a Steampunk Alternate History close to our world in The Edwardian Era. One night on duty in the crow's nest, Matt spots and rescues a drifting hot-air balloon with one passenger: a mysterious old man mumbling about "beautiful creatures" who dies shortly afterward. One year later, the wealthy Kate de Vries and her chaperone board the ship, Kate determined to prove the old man (her grandfather) right. The Aurora is soon scuttled on a tropical island by air pirates, and Kate and Matt discover that the creatures do in fact exist. In the two later books, Skybreaker and Starclimber, they go on to explore other extreme environments and make important scientific discoveries.

As the series goes on, Matt and Kate strike up a romance, which has to be kept hidden as they belong to different social classes. Much drama and reflection is drawn from his bitterness over having to provide for his family and her naivete to what the life of the working-class is really like. There are many other real-world issues and concepts dwelled on, such as the space race, early feminism and suffragettes, and clean energy sources.

Other supporting characters include Marjorie Simpkins, Kate's fumbling chaperone; Vikram Spirzglas, notorious Sky Pirate; Captain Walken, captain of the Aurora; Nadira, the mysterious gypsy; and Hal Slater, Bruce Lunardi, and James Sanderson, all Matt's rivals for Kate's affections at one time or another.

In-universe, airships are a completely viable mode of transportation because of a fictional gas called "hydrium" which is even lighter than helium and makes it next-to-no-effort to stay aloft, in addition to fixed-wing aircraft having never become viable as means of transportation. Vancouver, known as "Lionsgate City," is known as the airship capital of the world.

Many real-life people or places are alluded to, mostly through slightly changed names; "Amelia Gearhart", "Evelyn Karr," etc.

Not related to the rock band Airbourne.


  • The Ace: Matt sees Hal Slater as a man who has everything Matt wants: his own ship, no masters, Kate's affection, and a wide range of useful skills. This is mostly in his head, however. The real Hal is much more of a Broken Ace — though a genuinely competent captain, he's also deeply in debt, prone to blaming everyone else for his problems, and misses Grunel's far more valuable blueprints in his ravenous search for gold.
  • Alternate History: The fictional world's timeline seems to have diverged with ours in the late 1800s, so far as human history goes. The history of its natural world seems to have diverged far earlier. In Starclimber, Sir John McKinnon remarks that "the last century belonged to France," the implications of which remain vague.
  • Angry Chef: The recurring character Chef Vlad is notable for his short fuse: he's a genius chef, but is easily set off on angry rants when things don't go his way. His outbursts are fairly justified on occasion — in Skybreaker, he's reintroduced while bodily throwing a waiter out of his kitchen after he caught the latter dipping his fingers in the food — but he's sometimes set off by more... questionable... matters — in Starclimber, he says he had to quit his job in a Parisian restaurant after he set the French president's tie on fire due to a disagreement regarding proper ways to make a glaze.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Hydrium gas. The narration notes that it's even lighter than hydrogen. Apparently, it can't be stored under very high pressure, more than in gas bag (which got the ship stranded in the first book).
  • Artistic License – Chemistry: It's impossible for an element with the aforementioned properties of Hydrium to exist under real-world laws of chemistry. The reason hydrogen is the lightest gas is because it consists of a single electron and a single proton. There are substances lighter than hydrogen, such as muonium, but they are highly unstable and have a lifetime measured in microseconds, making them useless as a lifting gas for airships.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: A mounted yeti, alongside its bones, is one of the exhibits aboard the Hyperion. The sherpas are aware of these creatures' existence, but the scientific community — minus Kate — considers them myth.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Skybreaker ends with the blueprints to Grunel's revolutionary engine being lost for good; despite the death of George Barton, the Aruba Consortium will suppress renewable energy for the foreseeable future. However, the four leads do at least get what they wanted out of the voyage, with Kate discovering more rare specimens and Matt, Hal, and Nadira finding enough gold to set themselves up well.
  • The Captain: Captain Walken can handle any problem, calm angry passengers, and stand up to pirates with only one gun. And compliment your hair at the same time.
  • Cool Airship: The Aurora is a skyborne answer to a luxury ocean liner, complete with staterooms, fine dining, and even a movie theater.
    • The Sagarmatha is a "Skybreaker" designed to function at ludicrously high altitudes.
    • The Hyperion outdoes them all, having been built by a mad genius to stay aloft indefinitely, and tricked out with secret tunnels, a steampunk laboratory, its own farm and orchard, and even a zoo.
  • Cutting the Knot: In the third book, Tobias advises Matt to propose marriage to Kate. His reasoning: if she says yes despite all the forces arrayed against them, it will be clear she loves Matt. If she cites any of the reasons such an engagement would be difficult, she doesn't love him enough to be worth pursuing. Either way, the other passengers on the space elevator won't have to deal with their romantic drama anymore.
  • Different World, Different Movies: In the first book, Matt watches a silent Gilgamesh movie directed by the Lumiere Triplets. Supposedly a third brother helps Auguste and Louis take their inventions to sensational conclusions, as Georges Méliès did in our world.
  • Disappeared Dad: Matt's father died in an accident on the Aurora, which is why Matt must work at 15 to support his mother and sisters.
  • Dumbwaiter Ride: Matt uses a dumbwaiter to move through the airship Aurora after it is hijacked by pirates.
  • The Edwardian Era: Probably, although the exact time is quite vague and undetermined.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones:
    • Vikram Szpirglas has a young son named Theodore, to whom he tells amazing bedtime stories.
    • Subverted with Nadira. While she is Szpirglas's daughter, she hardly knew him and isn't too bothered that he's dead — although she does want Matt to tell her the whole truth.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Kate's dress manages to be pretty and good for discovering unknown species in!
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Europe is Europa, England is Angleterre, Vancouver is Lionsgate City, the Atlantic and Pacific are the Atlanticus and the Pacificus, and there is a Republic of Colorado. However, most places (Canada, Paris, Victoria, and Australia to name the most prominent ones) are kept the same.
  • Karma Houdini: John Rath from Skybreaker. While his employer and many of his crew members die, Rath himself not only gets away clean, but gets his very own Skybreaker airship debt-free. The worst thing that happens to him is an injured hand.
  • Kick the Dog: Just when you thought Vikram Szpirglas might secretly be a nice guy, he cold-heartedly executes Mr. Featherstone and Bruce, and spends the rest of the book on a murderous rampage.
  • Life in Zero G: Starclimber focuses on life discovered by the characters in low Earth orbit while on the titular Space Elevator. Unfortunately, that includes a form of "astral barnacle" that is eating away at the elevator's cable...
  • Lady of Adventure: Kate De Vries, with her numerous expeditions to the upper sky and to space in search of unknown forms of life, although she's probably quite a bit younger than most.
  • Love Dodecahedron: In Skybreaker, Matt is attracted to Nadira while jealously believing Hal to be romancing Kate.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Played with; Nadira is revealed to be Vikram Spirzglas' daughter, but she's always known; Matt is the shocked one.
  • Matron Chaperone: Ms. Simpkins fits this to a tee; she's not very brave, tries to keep Kate from doing anything fun, and is especially suspicious when any young men are around.
  • No Fame, No Wealth, No Service: The restaurant Matt meets Kate at in Skybreaker is quite choosy about who it allows as costumers; since Matt isn't really a high society type and certainly doesn't look it, he was quickly judged a "ragamuffin" and was about to be escorted out until Chef Vlad intervened.
  • Opposites Attract: Matt and Kate, a lowly ship's boy from a poor family and a high-class adventuress and scientist.
  • Phlebotinum-Induced Steampunk: Takes place in an Alternate History where the existence of hydrium allows airships to be a common type of travel.
  • Recurring Extra: The Lumiere triplets are mentioned in all three books and Matt sees them at a resturant in Skybreaker.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Bruce Lunardi. His relationship with Matt receives a lot of development as Matt learns to not judge Bruce on first appearances. When Szpirglas returns for the finale, Bruce is shot in the head to let us know the threat is serious.
  • Shown Their Work: Yes, the gas cells in rigid airships really were made of cow intestine.
  • The Sky Is an Ocean: And how. If Matt stopped reminding us how much he loves the air you might forget they're not on the sea.
  • Sky Pirate: Vikram Spirzglas & co., John Rath & co.
  • Space Elevator: The Starclimber, mankind's first space fairing vehicle. It's furnished as well as any hotel and rides on a cable of highly reinforced steel.
  • Space Is an Ocean: In Starclimber, Kate compares the species they discover to those that dwell on the shores of Earth's oceans, wondering what sort of creatures live even further out.
  • Space Whale: Well, more like Space Whale/Firefly/Shark. A group of these creatures are found in near-Earth orbit at the end of the third book, having come to breed. It's speculated these are the small fish of the cosmos, and much bigger ones might be living in deep space, away from the planetary "shallows". There is also space "coral" that grows on the Starclimber's cable.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Kate de Vries is a young woman from a wealthy family and she's from alternate history (close to our Edwardian era, in the steam-punk style), so she's expected to behave like a lady, but she has an adventurous streak. Lampshaded after she petitions the Zoological Society to investigate the existence of the creatures her grandfather saw, she's told to return to "young lady's pursuits", much to her disgust.
  • Supreme Chef: Chef Vlad, for all his foul temper, is extremely good at what he does — he's easily able to secure a position as head chef in one of Paris' best restaurants after retiring from his job as a cook on a luxury airship, and his talent is what leads to him being chosen as the cook of the Starclimber's maiden voyage.
  • Those Magnificent Flying Machines: Besides airships, ornithopters are also viable transportation options.
  • Thunderbolt Iron: The cable of the Space Elevator in Starclimber is made out of this,
  • Unobtanium: Hydrium, a substance lighter than hydrogen but which is non-flammable.
  • Wham Line: "Not birds."
  • Why Can't I Hate You?: Non-romantic — Bruce gets a position instead of Matt because of his wealthy father, but proves to be a friendly guy who knows what an awkward situation he's in. Matt finds this is actually more frustrating than if he'd been a spoiled brat.
  • You Are Grounded!: Kate in chapter 13 of the first book as a result of Miss Simpkins's discovery of the bones. She escapes between the end of that chapter and the start of chapter 14.
  • You Killed My Father: Nadira's father, Spirzglas, was the Big Bad of the previous book and killed by Matt. She doesn't seem that unhappy or angry about it, though...
  • Zeppelins from Another World: The oh-so-ubiquitous airships are the first sign of the series being Alternate History.