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Stairway to space
on March 5, 2009
Having explored the far reaches of the skies, Matt Cruse is about to fly beyond them -- into the unknown expanse of space.
Yup. Space. Kenneth Oppel's airship trilogy takes a distinctly sci-fi turn in the final volume, "Starclimber" -- it's focused on the wondrous expanses outside Earth's, and the dangers that go with its first pioneers. It's a little top-heavy with Matt's romantic woes, but Oppel does a truly brilliant job mingling sci-fi, adventure and a sense of lyrical wonder.
Matt Cruise has been working as a tug captain at the Celestial Tower, but he's offered a wildly different job: to become one of the first astralnauts on a space mission.
Unfortunately as he undergoes the grueling training, Matt is distracted -- Kate (who is heavily involved in the suffragette movement) is being pressured to make a "good match" with a rich man. And while both of them are included on the cable-climbing "Starclimber," Matt is horrified when he discovers that Kate's parents have forced her to make a choice -- get engaged or give up outer space.
The specially selected team succeeds in leaving the Earth behind, only to find that space has its own variety of dangers -- including mysterious glowing objects, monstrous space creatures, asteroids, and the threat of a bombing from the fanatical Babelites. But the worst is yet to come, when Matt finds that he must repair a delicate piece of equipment... or the entire expedition will be destroyed.
Just as Oppel's "Airborn" and "Skybreaker" asked what if airships had dominated the skies, "Starclimber" explores the idea of a more technologically advanced Victorian age where space travel is a realistic possibility. He even touches on some timeless topics, such as prejudice against women's abilities (and Kate's rebuttals) and fanaticism (the Babelites, believing it angers God to venture into space).
And despite the slow unfolding of the story, Oppel keeps it interesting with his a lovely prose style (the darting lights and haunting space "music"), and the detailed descriptions of space training and technology. About halfway through it suddenly tightens into a taut action story, with lots of space rescues and bizarre alien life forms.
And though a bunch of bickering strangers in space sounds boring, he injects little moments of comedy into the story ("There is no energy in Paris, no dynamism. An artist like myself must move on. Also, I set fire to the French president"). If there's a flaw, it's that the subplot about Matt and Kate's fragmenting relationship weighs a little too heavily during life-threatening crises.
Matt and Kate have grown up a great deal, but are still very much the same -- she's a impetuous, strong-willed and determined scientist, while he's a lovable, humble pilot who just wants the skies and Kate (although he suffers from some thorny jealousy and doubts about her). The supporting cast is a pretty fun bunch as well, particularly the prickly Miss Karr, pompous windbag Sir Hugh, and the paternal Captain Walken.
"Starclimber" takes everything that was good about Oppel's steampunky fantasy books, and launches them into orbit. A solid finale for a brilliant trilogy, and definitely a good ending for Matt and Kate.