February 08, 2007


Skybreaker. By Kenneth Oppel. Eos. $6.99.

Sandstorm. By Ted Simmons. Cypress Publications. $13.95.

      Skybreaker is the sequel to Airborn, a fast-paced adventure that takes place in an alternative world in which dirigible-like airships, rather than airplanes, rule the skyways. Airborn introduced cabin boy Matt Cruse and heiress Kate de Vries, and the fascinating and dangerous winged mammals called cloud cats. There was adventure aplenty in Airborn, including pirates, a crash landing and some scientific explorations. Skybreaker has its share of adventure, too, being focused on a ghost airship: the Hyperion, which vanished 40 years before the time of the story, carrying a huge amount of wealth. Pursued by treasure hunters since its disappearance, the Hyperion has never been found, but Matt and Kate – and a mysterious gypsy girl named Nadira who tags along with them – are determined, for reasons of their own, to locate it. Matt is no longer a cabin boy but a student at the Airship Academy. Along with Kate, he boards the Skybreaker, whose new engines can take them 20,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. If that number is reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, it is surely intentional, since Skybreaker uses many of the storytelling techniques that Verne pioneered in the 19th century. There is budding romance between Matt and Kate – interrupted by a kiss between Matt and Nadira that Kate witnesses – and there are strange and deadly animals called aerozonans (squid-like beasts with electric tentacles, reminiscent of Verne’s giant squid) that must be overcome before the Hyperion can be located. Skybreaker is somewhat oddly structured: the opening and closing pages are fast-paced, but much of the middle meanders through subplot after subplot. It is less overtly thrilling than Airborn, even though pirates do reappear here. Considered primarily as a mystery rather than a tale of wonder, Skybreaker is effective, but it will probably appeal mostly to readers of Airborn who want to know what happened next to Matt and Kate.

      If Kenneth Oppel takes readers to an alternative world, Ted Simmons journeys to one that is all too real – although it seems otherworldly enough. Sandstorm is set in Iraq during wartime – not the current war, but the 1990 war that presaged the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was the war in which Iraq invaded Kuwait and the first President Bush sent U.S. troops to repel Saddam Hussein’s forces – but not to depose Hussein or march into Baghdad. Simmons does not tell a geopolitical story, however. He tells a personal one, of 16-year-old Jeff Conners, who is caught in Kuwait when the Iraqis attack. It is only after being in the country for a year and a half that Jeff has a traditional meal at an Arab house, because “Americans in Kuwait usually stick together.” And it is during Jeff’s visit to that house that the invasion begins. Jeff, unable to reach his father, must cast his lot with the Kuwaitis. They seem almost impossibly noble: “We are not martyrs. We want to live to see our country returned to us.” But they are also gutsy, fast-moving and willing to protect Jeff as long as he does not endanger them. Everywhere he goes, Jeff encounters people who help him – even when he makes mistakes that do endanger them. Jeff learns, in a few harrowing days, how to survive and get to his father in Saudi Arabia; for example, he helps figure out where he and a companion can find fresh water in the desert. And Jeff does survive, and grow, and learn a great deal about himself – and somewhat less about the land in which he has his adventure. Sandstorm is fact-based fiction by an author who knows whereof he writes: a technology manager for an oil company, Simmons was in Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded. The descriptive passages of the book ring true, but the characters, including Jeff, are more types than fully formed individuals. Still, this short novel packs a lot of intensity into a mere 130 pages.

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