Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.
Futuristic fiction set on Earth after World War III has destroyed most of civilization. I bet the word that immediately came to mind was ”dystopia”. Riding the wave of Hunger Games interest, there have been no end to the stories of oppressive societies, dark futures and technology run amok. Sky Jumpers isn’t any of those things. What we have here instead is a story that is pure post apocalyptic adventure.
The citizens of White Rock enjoy one of the few safe bastions of civilized life that are left on the WWIII ravaged landscape. The Green Bombs that were released destroyed buildings and human life, and left pockets of super dense Oxygen molecules that can kill any creature who tries to breathe within such a pocket. While the environment is rich and fertile, technology has all but vanished from people’s lives. The people of White Rock are slowly trying to rebuild parts of that lost technology and society by inventing–or reinventing devices that can help improve lives. Every White Rock citizen is expected to contribute to the invention process, down to the youngest school children.
Twelve year old Hope wishes she were good at inventing. She’s tried time and time again to create something for her school project, only to fail in disastrous and dramatic fashion. She yearns to make her parents proud of her but can’t seem to do anything right. The only things she’s any good at is jumping through the huge pocket of ”Bomb’s Breath” that lies outside her town. By holding her breath, she can jump into the super dense air and have it slow her fall so she can do all sorts of tricks and land safely. When raiders manage to take over the town and demand their precious antibiotic supply, Hope’s ability to get through the Bomb’s Breath safely may be their only salvation. Hope escapes with her friends on a daring and dangerous mission to get help before time runs out!
Peggy Eddleman delivers an action-packed adventure tale with a strong and likable female protagonist. Rather than an overbearing or oppressive society, Hope’s town of White Rock comes across as a fairly egalitarian place. Picture a frontier town style of setting, where the citizens are constantly working to keep their town protected and productive and you might have a clearer picture of White Rock. That’s not to say the author hasn’t created a satisfying science fiction story! This is a great book for introducing younger readers to this style of science fiction. Kids not ready for the dark revelations of The Giver or the violence of The Hunger Games will be able to sink their teeth into this story. Hope’s struggle is a relevant one to any reader–the desire to do something that her family can be proud of–and the need to be herself.
It seems that this book may be the first in a series, but the story wraps up nicely by the last chapter, so readers won’t be left hanging. I’ll be curious to see where Ms. Eddleman takes her characters in the next story. As I mentioned, the story is on the lighter side, and will work best for 3rd and 4th grade readers who are just beginning to try science fiction. It does not have the complexity or sophistication of something like The Hunger Games trilogy–and I’m just as glad it doesn’t. This fits soundly into the world of middle grade fiction, and gives younger readers the foundations of good science fiction. Unlike the action-adventure video game quality of many alien invasion and superhero stories, this will engage readers’ imagination and have them asking “what if?”
I do have to grumble about the cover a little. It’s not that the cover isn’t an interesting one, but it’s a little inaccurate. It appears to show our characters diving into a lightning and mountain clad landscape as if they will fly over it. I would have preferred something that felt more true to the actual story. Still, a great read for the right audience. I’ll be looking for more from this author.
The Dream Catcher by Monica Hughes (Atheneum, 1986)
Tomorrow’s Magic by Pamela Service (Random House, c1988)(less)
The last time I encountered a story that used the legend of Prince Madoc as inspiration for the story, it was A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. Apparently, it was a popular legend in the Colonial days. The story goes that long before Columbus ”discovered” America, a Welsh prince came to the shores of North America with some of his people. Rumors of Native Americans speaking Welsh and a lost kingdom of Welshmen fueled all sorts of searches and offers of reward for their discovery. Though in our reality, nothing ever came of the wild story, writers have taken the threads of the legend to inspire their own fantastic stories. Matthew J. Kirby takes his readers into a an alternate Colonial America where the threat of the French and Indian war is looming and a remarkable group of men have devised a plan . . .
Billy Bartram is about to undertake the adventure of a lifetime. His father, naturalist John Bertram and the renowned Benjamin Franklin are anxious that the French are ready to make their move and threaten the British colonies. In order to get the jump on the French and try and secure allies against the threat, a singular group of men from the Philosopher’s Society will embark on a flying ship in search of a legend. Billy can scarcely believe his luck at being included in the mission as his father’s assistant, but things don’t go quite as imagined for the intrepid explorers. Dangerous wildlife, violent storms and the whims of the crew make a risky journey into a deadly one, while the French are closing in. Kirby’s story is one of adventure, myth and fantasy woven into the backdrop of actual history.
Kirby isn’t shy about rewriting whole parts of the U.S. history for this story. While we meet characters of historical context (most notably Ben Franklin and Washington) many of the inventions and the frontier creatures that our explorers meet are not consistent with that historical period. The author has made good use of a variety of myths, from the Philosopher’s Stone, to the Fountain of Youth and paired this with wild legends of a Welsh kingdom in the frontier lands. Kirby’s landscape is reminiscent of the Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede, but without the slower pacing, quieter action and extra detail. While the setting is critical to the story and its outcome, the author’s main focus is his characters and the interactions between them.
Billy is our protagonist in this tale, and it is his journey, both physical and emotional, that readers are meant to follow. At the outset of our story, Billy is in utter awe of his father and has no doubt he wants to be like him. But as the journey gets underway, our hero quickly discovers sides to his father that he had not expected . . . and areas where they don’t agree. The changing interaction between Billy and his father is one of the main plot arcs in the novel. Where the alternate history and steampunk styled inventions might not be familiar to middle grade readers, Billy’s struggle to come to grips with who he is and how that differs from his parent will be one most kids can latch on to and identify with in some part. The other crew members on our flying ship are also vividly imagined, and complex individuals with conflicting motives and interests. My one disappointment in the character building has to remain with the single female character that is present in this story. I don’t believe I’m spoiling much by mentioning young Jane, since she’s clearly pictured on the cover of the book. Jane’s character never seems to fully take shape in the story and there is at least one glaring moment where her ineptitude puts the entire mission at risk. It may be I was more bothered by this than a younger reader would be, but my overall feeling is that Jane is used to conveniently forward the plot and give our character a friend of similar age without giving her enough of her own personality.
This book moves forward at a fairly fast clip that keeps us moving from crisis to crisis in fairly short order. While my adult self does tend to prefer a more leisurely pace for storytelling and events, this may work well for younger readers who prefer the constant action. The breathless adventure with its historical fantasy flavor manages to pack quite a punch for such a short book. Obviously there’s more than a little “steampunk” to this story (it’s more good evidence that steampunk has made its way firmly into the middle grade fiction) the flying ship on the cover of the book, the explorations of electricity, the creative weapons and inventions of our philosopher crew. The author clearly feels at home with the genre and is willing to explore it, with quite delightful results. I was thoroughly entertained . Reader’s who enjoyed the Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three (2010) and Icefall (2011) should definitely check this one out.(less)