The short: 4/5 ✦. An solid, if mildly flawed, conclusion to the Matt Cruse trilogy. Pretty much everything you wanted to have happen does.
I read Airborn and Skybreaker many years ago, when I had the bright idea of choosing the thickest books whenever I was able to buy something at the bookstore. (It’s a system that largely worked out for me, until the Harry Potter phenomena started, as my mom was anti-wizard for the longest time, and I would just stare at those fat books longingly. Finally, I asked my friend to let me borrow her copies in 8th grade and joined the fandom, body and soul. Also by then, my mom had lightened up a little and even bought me the 7th one when it came out.)
I really liked these “Matt Cruse” books, as they weren’t completely sci-fi or fantasy, but something pleasantly in between. Other reviewers and even the author, Kenneth Oppel, himself admits the influence of boy’s adventure stories and Jules Verne, especially 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (one of my favorite books). And it’s fairly unique among YA in that even though Matt and Kate are in love with each other, their romance doesn’t detract at all from the plot or the other characters, but it’s simply a part of their character arcs. Matt realizes that their love ultimately trumps his lower class status, and Kate realizes that her dreams and desires don’t necessarily have to be put on hold because of love. There aren’t any long, pining paragraphs of Matt dissecting Kate’s appearance or personality, or bemoaning his not being with her. He thinks about it – a lot – to be sure, but it’s done in the frank, practical way that defines who he is. He gets jealous, he gets hurt, but he also has other passions and duties to perform, and knows how to set his personal problems aside to do what needs to be done.
Some readers may find that disappointing, but despite being a romantic, I’m very put-off by idolization and pining in love situations, which is a huge stereotype of YA books that unfortunately rings true far too often. Any blurb that reads something like, “Torn between Bob, who she can’t help falling for, and Larry, who she can’t stay away from, these two strangers will change Mary, a seventeen year old, forever . . . ” is an instant red flag for me, no matter how otherwise exciting the plot sounds. That tells me what the story’s really going to be about, which something that I personally have no interest in reading. You may be different! We all have unique tastes and preferences, but for me, I enjoyed the romance in this trilogy specifically because it was one of many drivers of plot and character, not the entire focus. (Perhaps I’ll do a proper analytical post about this later.)
As for Starclimber specifically (some spoilers follow!), I had no idea there even was a third book until last year, and finally this month, I picked up from the library. Unlike the last series I finished, I actually wanted to know what was going on, who was who, and to be properly caught up. So I reread Airborn and Skybreaker, and they were every bit as good as I remember. Adventure-y with a little fantasy (boy, I wish airships and cloud cats were real!), and excellent examples of what YA should be. Oppel blends historical fact with magical fiction, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything not meticulously researched, right down to the cow intestine gas bags that hold the wondrous hydrium. Everything from electric flying squids to high-altitude sickness has real science to back it up. It’s a beautiful world, much like our own past, but better because flying kitties and luxury sky cruises.
One quibble I have is the required suspension of disbelief. Of course in books like these, some is expected, even required. Hydrium doesn’t exist, and neither do space whales (well, that we know of, anyway). But those elements are easily hand-waved. A main aspect of Matt’s character is that he has to work hard for everything because he is poor, something many of us can relate to. As much as he loves Kate, her flaunting of wealth is what he finds infuriating about her, because though she too must work harder to be accepted into society because she’s female, her money and status makes it slightly easier. But in Starclimber, there’s a great level of suspense around who’s going to be chosen to be an “astralnaut” into space. Considering it’s Matt’s story, you know he’s going to be on the ship, that’s a given. And the poor guy who got picked instead has to suffer a broken leg just so Matt can be defaulted in. It’s not totally unaddressed, as Matt is appreciative of his lucky break, but it’s one that made me raise my eyebrow just a tad.
It’s also predictable that someone undeserving will die, like poor Bruce in Airborn. There’s nothing wrong with character deaths, especially when they actually make enough of an impact for you to actually feel sad about it, but Shepherd had a huge target painted on his back the instant he began to be a bit sassy to Captain Walken, and sure enough, he dies quite horribly when his line is cut and he goes floating off into space. There’s also little grieving time shown, as he dies during a crucial mission, so it doesn’t quite have the oomph that maybe it should. But maybe that was just me, because by that time, I was flying through the pages, eager to find out how the heck they were going to get back to Earth without exploding and please oh please don’t have the Captain die, he’s amazing (see, I told you it’s a good story!).
And finally, the problem of Kate’s fiancé, whom Matt is angry about most of the book, is suddenly resolved in the last few pages, because he cheated on her, despite seeing like kinda maybe a nice guy. Like most of these “predictabilities” (totes a word I just made up), though, Oppel does a good job of foreshadowing their presence, as Kate does mention the guy’s poor reputation with women earlier, and in Skybreaker, the deux ex machina appearance of the gold in the ‘copter is a rather tidy conclusion to a minor mystery involving Grunel’s disappearing servant. But you do really, really want Kate and Matt to end up together, and with all the drama going on, it’s certainly a relief when Matt finally proposes.
The other quibble was with Kate herself. Other reviewers had issues with her, too, and although I greatly enjoy her characterization and her fierceness to adhere to both her strengths and flaws, she pushes the envelope in this one, and even Matt takes notice:
I said nothing. I’d known for years how determined Kate was, but I’d never thought she’d be quite this ruthless. She’d made promises she had no intention of keeping. She’d lied to me. She’d hurt me. How did I know she wouldn’t hurt me again–and worse–to get something she really wanted?
It’s an incredibly valid point, and one with real consequences. And she does hurt him again. She does lie to him again. And he keeps forgiving her because, well, love. I’m glad it’s mentioned and that Matt thinks about it, but he doesn’t reflect on it very long, and I think it’s a shame because it’s technically emotional abuse and many people do it or accept it without even realizing. Luckily, Oppel has Kate be the one to apologize for her actions and to first admit openly that she loves Matt and that she’s totally willing to tell her parents even it means risking her wealth and status. AND MATT AND KATE LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, WHICH IS ALL WE REALLY WANTED.
In a nutshell, Starclimber is a very good book that surprisingly could have been longer. The elevator-ship into space was tremendously exciting, but condensed, and I think more self-reflection would’ve be nice instead of repeated drama. Still, a totally worthy end to this trilogy, and I highly, highly recommend these books to any adventure fiction lover.
Header image: Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel, published February 24, 2009 by HarperCollins