54 pages 1 hour read

Kenneth Oppel


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Airborn is a 2004 Young Adult steampunk adventure novel by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel. Airborn is the first in Oppel’s Matt Cruse series, which would go on to include Skybreaker (2005) and Starclimber (2008). Airborn follows the adventures of Matt Cruse, a cabin boy on the airship Aurora. With passenger and love interest Kate de Vries, Matt discovers a previously unknown creature on an island in the Pacifica, the in-world version of the Pacific Ocean. Airborn examines themes of class difference, grief, and exploration. The novel was named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book and won the Governor’s General Award for children’s literature, among other prizes.

This guide refers to the 2009 Adobe Digital Edition, released by Harper Collins.

Content Warning: This guide discusses violence, death of a parent, grief, sexism, and classism.

Plot Summary

The novel opens with Matt Cruse, cabin boy, finishing a night watch on the airship Aurora. He sees a hot air balloon and alerts Captain Walken. Matt manages to rescue an elderly man from the balloon before it crashes, though the man is gravely injured. He lives long enough to introduce himself as Benjamin Molloy and to make mysterious comments about “beautiful creatures” that someone named Kate would have loved. After Molloy’s death, Matt keeps an eye out for creatures but does not find any.

A year later, Matt returns to the Aurora after a week’s shore leave, hopeful that he will soon be promoted to junior sailmaker. When a small mechanical aircraft called an ornithopter buzzes near the Aurora, Matt learns that two passengers who missed takeoff are aboard. To Matt’s surprise, Walken lets them land. Miss Kate de Vries and her chaperone Miss Marjorie Simpkins come aboard. Though Kate is a wealthy first-class passenger, she and Matt share a commiserative glance over the fussy Miss Simpkins.

Matt learns, to his great disappointment, that he will not be promoted; Walken has been forced to take on the son of the Aurora’s owner as a new junior sailmaker instead. Matt conducts a ship tour, which only Kate attends, and the two chat pleasantly about their mutual admiration of the ship’s inner workings. Matt confides that he was born on an airship and that his childhood was spent listening to his father’s tales of the life of an airman. Kate, in turn, discusses her grandfather, Molloy. She has come aboard the Aurora to find the “beautiful creatures” he referenced. Miss Simpkins interrupts before she can say more.

At dinner, Matt meets Bruce Lunardi, the new junior sailmaker. He is dismayed to find that Bruce is likable, though he remains jealous. During his dinner shift, Kate asks Matt to deliver two hot chocolates. When he arrives, he learns that the second drink is for him. Worried he will get in trouble for fraternizing with a passenger, Matt refuses the drink, though he takes Molloy’s journal when Kate urges him to read it.

Matt reads the journal, becoming consumed by Molloy’s claim that he has discovered creatures that are “half bird, half panther” (84). These creatures are born mid-flight. If they cannot immediately fly, they plummet to the earth; Molloy witnesses one hatchling fall. The journal becomes increasingly strange, causing Matt to wonder about Molloy’s sanity. This observation annoys Kate, who is determined to prove naysaying scientists at the Zoological Society wrong. He promises to check their route to see if the Aurora will approach the area Molloy charted in his writings. He learns they will be closest the following morning.

From the crow’s nest, Matt spots air pirates, led by the legendary Vikram Szpirglas. Szpirglas gathers the passengers in the lounge and says that if they surrender their possessions, no violence will occur. Mr. Featherstone, the chief wireless officer, is found to have attempted an SOS call, so Szpirglas kills him. When the pirates depart, a storm blows their ship into the Aurora. The pirates’ propellers slice through the Aurora’s fabric exterior, causing hydrium gas to leak.

Matt helps the crew patch the holes, noting Bruce’s discomfort on the exterior of the ship. Their efforts are insufficient, and the Aurora sinks closer to the sea. Just as they prepare to evacuate, Matt spots an island in the distance. They land safely, though Matt is anxious over being “landlocked.” The crew hastens to repair the Aurora. Matt and Kate discuss their differing opinions on the island: Kate is excited, recognizing the island from Molloy’s journals, while Matt is wary of unknown dangers. Kate explores, Matt only reluctantly following to keep her from harm. They find the bones of one of the flying creatures and Kate swears Matt to secrecy, planning to return to document the find. Matt only agrees to return when she threatens to go with Bruce instead.

The next day, Kate documents the skeleton before carefully disassembling the bones, heedless of Matt’s urging that he needs to be back to the Aurora in time for his shift to begin. As they prepare to depart, they realize that one of the creatures, which Matt thinks of as “cloud cats,” has landed in the tree. It has a damaged wing, identifying it as the infant Molloy saw fall. Kate pursues the creature, eager to get a photograph, but it evades them.

As they return to the Aurora, a storm hits, forcing the pair to hide in a cave that smells of mangoes, the scent of hydrium gas. Matt realizes that they can use rubber tubing from the cargo hold to pipe the hydrium to the ship, which has lost too much fuel to fly. The next day, Matt works on the makeshift hydrium pipeline, avoiding Kate lest she asks him to explore again. Kate is confined to her stateroom after Miss Simpkins finds the bones. Kate asks Matt to help her escape, but Matt, frustrated that Kate ignores his responsibilities, refuses.

When Kate is discovered to be missing the next morning, Bruce and Matt are sent to retrieve her. They return to where Matt and Kate last saw the cloud cat and find her waiting with her camera. Matt urges her to return and Kate refuses. The cloud cat appears. Matt reluctantly agrees to let Kate take the creature’s photograph, though he worries it is dangerous. When Kate snaps the photo, the creature pounces on Bruce, injuring him. Matt and Kate flee.

An airship passes overhead and Kate hails it before Matt can warn her that it is Szpirglas’s ship. The pair concoct a story about being shipwrecked. They pretend to think the pirates are part of the Air Guard. They are taken to a village, which Matt recognizes is the pirates’ stronghold. They meet Szpirglas’s toddler son, Theodore, and are plied with food and drink, which Matt belatedly realizes has been spiked. He struggles to keep a clear head as he is quizzed on their story. He and Kate are taken to separate huts to sleep, only snatching a moment to agree on an escape plan. Matt is set to bunk with Szpirglas and his first mate, Crumlin.

Matt escapes, but Kate never arrives at their agreed-upon meeting point. He returns to the pirates’ village to find she has fallen asleep. They attempt to leave again, but Szpirglas catches them. He shoves Matt and Kate down a hydrium shaft, where they will suffocate. Matt realizes that Kate’s silk trousers can be fashioned into a makeshift balloon, and they use the hydrium to float out of the shaft. When they reach the Aurora, however, Szpirglas is already aboard.

Matt and Kate reunite with Bruce, who is hiding in the trees with an injured leg. They hatch a plan to sneak aboard the Aurora to free the captive crew. Matt creeps through the ship, seeking medical supplies to treat Bruce’s leg. He learns that there are eight pirates aboard, but the rest of the crew will arrive in three hours. They plan to fly the Aurora so no further pirates can board and put a sleeping tonic in the pirates’ food. Bruce goes to begin detaching the lines holding the Aurora to the ground while Matt and Kate deliver the tonic to the kitchens.

Matt and Kate are finishing untying the Aurora when they encounter a cloud cat that has followed them to the ship. In the control room, they raise the Aurora from the ground, narrowly avoiding the incoming pirate crew. Even so, two of the pirates already on the ship catch them. Matt lures them to the loading bay and dumps them through the hatch into the water below. The ship begins to turn, indicating that Szpirglas is returning them to the island, where his reinforcements wait. They separate again to shut down the engines, but Crumlin catches Matt and Kate.

Before Crumlin can shoot them, however, the cloud cat appears, drawn by the smell of the doctored fish soup Crumlin and another pirate named Rhino Hand have eaten. The cat attacks the pirates while Matt and Kate flee. They find Bruce’s body: Szpirglas has killed him. Kate hides and Matt runs out onto the outside of the Aurora. He sees the cloud cat gazing out at the sky. Szpirglas emerges and knocks Matt onto the Aurora’s tail fin. Matt knows he will soon fall. Szpirglas descends with the intent to kill Matt once and for all, but a flock of cloud cats attack Szpirglas, and he falls. Matt uses Szpirglas’s rope to ascend and steers the Aurora away from its imminent collision with a mountain. Walken arrives, confirming the remaining pirates are detained.

Six months later, Matt attends an exhibition showing the reassembled cat skeleton. He has taken the reward money from discovering Szpirglas’s hideout and used it to attend the Airship Academy. He and Kate talk, a little uncomfortable with one another after their time apart, though they plan to reunite in the future.