Book Review: Starclimber

Starclimber is the final book of the Airborn trilogy by Kenneth Oppel, a series of young adult steampunk books, set in a world where the aeroplane has not yet been invented. You can read my review of Airborn, the first book, here and my review of Skybreaker, the second book, here.

As the title may suggest, Starclimber is an adventure into outer space. The protagonists Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries board the Starclimber ship and journey to the stars. Kate is determined to escape the constrictions of upper-class society, as well as prove there is life beyond Earth, and Matt wants to prove his worth both as an “astralnaut” and a man worthy of Kate’s affections.

Starclimber begins with another exciting opening – every start to the Airborn series has been full of action and interesting characterisation – but unfortunately, the plot was pretty much the same to its predecessors Skybreaker and Airborn. In my Skybreaker review, despite my praise for Oppel’s storytelling, I said my expectations were for the next book to breakaway from the same narrative, with the same character stereotypes and narrative arc. Sadly though, my expectations weren’t met.

There is danger, there is adventure, there is a traitor, there is conflict between Matt and Kate, there is a discovery of a new species, there is a friend to provide comfort and comic relief; all of which has happened before. This was a little frustrating because although I knew I was reading a new book, it felt like reading the same story again!

Speaking of Matt and Kate, Kate develops into a horrible young woman. She claims she is criticised for being independent and headstrong, and so joins the suffragette movement to empower herself. Yet, this is not the Kate de Vries which has been presented to the reader at any point. Throughout Starclimber, Kate is nothing but rude, haughty and selfish. Yet when Sir Hugh Snuffler, Kate’s scientific rival, displays these same characteristics, he is met with disapproval by the other characters, and is subsequently made the butt of all the jokes.

To me, this came across as if it’s perfectly acceptable for women to be rude … because of feminism, but men aren’t allowed to be rude … because the author said so.

In my first review, I criticised Airborn for using the word ‘tingle’ to describe absolutely everything Matt felt. In Starclimber, the word ‘chuckle’ was used far too frequently – 24 times to be precise – in a short span of pages, so I would read the word ‘chuckle’ every 3 pages or so. This is a word I particularly have a grudge against anyway, so it was really quite difficult to convince myself to continue reading the story!

However, despite my annoyances with the characters, and their incessant chuckling, I did really like the plot of Starclimber.

Its action sequences felt the most dangerous and exciting out of any of the series, perhaps because space is still so unknown to today’s readers; anything can happen, and the risks of space travel are still immense. I thought Oppel’s designed method of space travel, rising up a reinforced, electrified cable, was a really creative way of imagining old-fashioned space travel.

Furthermore, the ending was sweet, and tied up the series really well – so often nowadays stories get dragged out by unnecessary cliff-hangers and more sequels, so it was nice that this series had a definitive ending. In a way, I’m sad there aren’t any more books, but I also think the stories work well as a trilogy, and to add more would spoil that.

If you’ve read Airborn and Skybreaker, I recommend Starclimber. If I had to choose a favourite of the series however, I’d probably choose Skybreaker.

– Judith


Book Review: Enemies Rising

Enemies Rising is the first story in a series by Paul Stretton-Stephens.

The story is about Tacrem, a “Downsider” – an underwater creature who has the ability to run, swim and jump incredibly quickly. He lives in an underwater settlement called Cetardia, below the “Upsiders” – that is, humans. According to Amazon, ‘Tacrem undertakes a rare and daring mission’ to confront the threat of “Upsiders” who wish to discover and exploit Cetardia for personal gain.

The genre of Enemies Rising is a mix between young adult, fantasy, science fiction, and action, with a message about the environment added in too.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a young adult story without a destiny to fulfil, and so the reader is plunged into the action straightaway, following Tacrem, a teenage “Downsider” with a mysterious purpose.

Initially, the opening to the story made me hopeful for an unusual fantasy read – unlike anything I’d ever read before, but sadly, I was left disappointed. Whilst the opening was action-packed, it was slightly overpacked, making events feel convoluted and confusing; I wasn’t always sure what was happening.

The population of ‘Cetardia’ all have bizarre names – for the mere sake of it, it would seem – and bizarre species, with the city itself lacking in vivid description. I couldn’t help but imagine it as Otoh Gunga, an alien underwater city from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (and given how great that film was, it wasn’t exactly the best comparison to draw).

My Photo [Enemies Rising 1].png

Furthermore, these species, places and names were not explained. This was incredibly difficult to visualise anybody, or remember who they were, or their characteristics – a fundamental issue in science fiction or fantasy, where alien life is so often pivotal to the narrative; it is important the reader knows and understands what these new creatures are.

Having said that, the best parts of the story were when Tacrem’s narrative was blended with the narrative of two “Upsiders” – climatologist Professor Jack Berry and his daughter Jess. This grounded the story in a level of reality, so I could follow more easily what was going on.

Whilst the story lacked in places, as I’ve described, I actually liked the premise Stretton-Stephens had planned: A fictional underwater settlement faces challenges because of the impact of humans, a challenge used to reflect a message to the reader about the environment and protection of ocean life. This is exemplified by Professor Berry’s role in the story as a climatologist. However, the execution of this premise fell short, I thought, due to the lack of written style, flair, and proficiency.

A lot of the sentences felt “clunky” – they didn’t feel dynamic or natural, and Stretton-Stephens regularly transitions between reported action, reported speech, direct speech, indirect speech, and indirect thought, and these transitions were somewhat overwhelming. Although some readers may be able to overlook an interesting story told with poor writing, that is something I just cannot do.

In addition, Tacrem’s ability to ‘Mingle’ with a person – that is, to enter their mind telepathically to gain key information – was always described with oddly sexual language such as:

  • ‘In their short time together, Tacrem felt a rush of intense hear enter his body and a simultaneous tingling feeling that engulfed him from head to toe.’
  • ‘Sometimes they would thrust through him individually, and other times in pairs. Only at the end, after what seemed an age to Tacrem, did the three enter him together.’

This language jarred with the tone of the rest of the story, and I have no idea whether Stretton-Stephens intended this description to have these connotations, or simply didn’t realise.

The ending was also rather abrupt, which clashed with the apparent set-up of a “cliffhanger”, and I think where Stretton-Stephens chose to end the narrative was an overall odd decision.

To conclude, Enemies Rising missed the mark in a lot of places.

Whilst to some this review may seem overly critical, I want to emphasise that I critique books, not to grind the writer down – I appreciate how much hard work must have gone into writing this story – but to explain in detail what I liked and what I didn’t in the hopes they can use that feedback to improve upon their work.

The genre and narrative concept behind Enemies Rising were okay, but the writing style disappointed me greatly, and unfortunately, I will not be reading the sequel, Enemies Rising Part 2.

– Judith

Book Review: Skybreaker

Skybreaker is the sequel to Airborn in a series of young adult steampunk books, set in a world where the aeroplane has not yet been invented. You can read my review of Airborn here.

Taking off from (no pun intended) Airborn, Skybreaker follows the protagonists Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries, as they board the airship Sagarmartha in an attempt to find a mysterious ghost ship, lost in the air, and the treasure left buried inside it.

I think Skybreaker is a better book than Airborn for the following reasons.

The descriptions are clearer, the dialogue is a lot wittier, and the overall writing is better*. Furthermore, characters – both those newly introduced and those from Airborn – are developed and the relationships between these characters are more complex.

*I’m pleased to report that Matt Cruse did not feel any ‘tingles’ in this book!

This character development really helped to shape the protagonists – something lacking from Airborn – , so I knew them better and decide who I liked and who I disliked; I liked the character of Matt, but strongly disliked Kate.

Matt Cruse comes from a lower social status, but longs to better himself. He is hardworking, caring, and eager to be of assistance whenever he can. Albeit, he envies those with more money because with money comes opportunities and power, and he hopes that this will help him win the heart of Kate de Vries.

Kate de Vries is from a wealthy background and used to a comfortable life, with a passion for flying and travelling. However, she has a tendency to, whether intentional or not, look down on those lower than her – Matt included – and spend time with men of a higher social status. She is arrogant, and offended by the very notion that her flirtations with those in society who are rich might make Matt feel unable to “compete” because of his social class.

Skybreaker has a similar dramatic beginning to its predecessor, something I initially thought was a positive. Yet, as I continued to read the book, I noticed a lot of other glaring plot similarities, which at times felt like I was reading the same book, just with better writing:

Matt learns of a mysterious ship (an air balloon/ Sagarmatha) carrying a mysterious man (Benjamin Malloy/Theodore Grunel), who has a mysterious journal about a mysterious discovery (a new species of animal). Kate and Matt have a rocky friendship, Kate grows closer to a boy of a higher class (Bruce/Hal) and together the youths must seek out the mysterious discovery, protecting the secrets from a troupe of villains (Vikram Szpirglas /John Rath).

It’s a shame the plot of Skybreaker is so similar, and I hope this doesn’t become a trope of Oppel’s writing; in my review of Airborn, I specifically praised the book for being able to cover various different genres without falling into the trap of recycling stereotypical genre conventions.

However, despite this criticism, I did enjoy reading Skybreaker a lot more than the first book – I read it in just 2 days.

Will I read the other books in this series? Quite possibly.

– Judith