CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007
Kenneth Oppel’s latest work will leave you breathless. Oppel is widely recognized as one of Canada’s best authors for adolescent readers. His latest novel, Darkwing, will only enhance his reputation and popularity. Despite the fame of book series like Harry Potter, one is always a little worried when an author decides to return to the well and revisit earlier, successful works. In Darkwing, Oppel decided to revisit his phenomenally successful “Silverwing Saga” book trilogy: Silverwing (1997); Sunwing (1999); and Firewing (2002). Darkwing, however, is a prequel to those books. Where the “Silverwing Saga” tells of the trials and triumphs of bats in a modern setting, Darkwing is set in Paleocene epoch, 65 million years ago. It is a time when the last of the dinosaurs are grimly, albeit unsuccessfully, clinging to survival. As the great dinosaurs disappear, new, ferocious meat-eating mammals fill their niche. Other mammals develop alternate survival mechanisms to cope with the new carnivorous threats. Among these are what are, essentially, “pre-bats,” evolving from what Oppel portrays as chiropters. In Darkwing, the story protagonist is Dusk. Dusk’s family and friends are chiropters. They are furry bat-like creatures who glide from the trees on the sails that extend from their arms. Dusk, however, is different from the rest of his colony. Dusk is missing a claw on each hand. He has weak legs, but a much stronger chest and shoulders. He has bigger ears than those around him. Dusk discovers that, where others’ eyesight is poor at nighttime, he can see in the dark using echolocation. Unlike the others in his colony, Dusk has furless wings and, what’s more, he has an abnormal impulse to flap his wings and fly upwards, rather than merely gliding downwards. All others in Dusk’s colony glide from high spots on a tree in order to catch insects for food. They then must climb back up the tree’s trunk before they can again glide downwards. Dusk, however, discovers that, riding thermals, he can go upwards without having to climb. Much more dramatically, however, he can flap his wings and fly. “We have sails so we can glide. That is how we use them. And for no other purpose,” Dusk’s mother scalds. “Don’t make yourself more different than you already are, Dusk. Difference can be severely punished in a colony….Behave like the colony, or risk being shunned by the colony” (p. 41). Later, Dusk overhears his parents in a whispered conversation. Mistral, the mother, says, “Some will be envious; more will simply see him as a freak….He just doesn’t look like all my other children. It’s like he belongs to some other species.” Dusk’s father, Icaron, acknowledges Dusk’s special abilities and recognizes their value to the colony, responding, “He can hunt faster, scout the forest more effectively, fly high and describe the world around us. He can see any predators coming from a distance; and warn us” (p. 93).
In Darkwing, Dusk is not the only character through whom Oppel suggests evolutionary change. Oppel portrays felids as cat-like, marten-like, creatures of the forest. Despite the disapproval of his mate, Panthera, and his leader, Patriofelis, Carnassial develops a hunger for meat. At the cost of being driven from his pack, Carnassial chooses not to discipline his appetite and sets about the hunter’s life, preying on whatever creatures he is able to catch and kill. This, despite the existence of a pact between the mammals who had previously agreed to work together to protect one another from the dangers represented by dinosaurs. With the increasing absence of dinosaurs, however, the world quickly becomes a vastly changed landscape. In the face of her new surroundings, Dusk’s sister, Sylph cries, “The world’s an ugly place. The big animals eat the little ones; the clever ones trick the stupid ones. That’s just the way it is. We need to kill them before they kill us!” (p. 315).
Oppel’s portrayal of the new and deadly world is masterfully done. Dusk and his family reel from one hazard to another. The breathless pace at which one threat immediately succeeds another will practically leave the reader panting as he or she turns from one page to the next. To borrow a description from Richard Adam’s rabbit classic, Watership Down (1972), Dusk and family are truly the Princes of a Thousand Enemies.
Despite being 330 pages in length, Darkwing is a fast read. The danger and excitement of the story and Oppel’s fast-paced writing will engage readers of all ages, but especially the middle school and junior high school age group. Darkwing is divided into 24 chapters. Each new chapter has a different title, and on each new chapter page is an illustration of a creature from the chapter. The book also contains about a dozen full-page illustrations. I found Keith Thompson’s monochromatic illustrations a useful addition in that they confirmed in my own mind the character/creature images I had pictured from Oppel’s descriptions. I guess that, in some ways, the illustrations enabled me to maintain the reading pace that the engaging writing demanded. Rather than having to wrestle with descriptions of fictional or extinct creatures, the illustrations enabled me to confirm my own thinking and then race ahead, trying to keep up with the new dangers that seemed to descend upon Dusk at each turn.
Congratulations to Kenneth Oppel for maintaining his own high standards and for creating another gem of Canadian children’s literature. With Darkwing, Oppel is sure to add to his imposing list of literary awards.
Gregory Bryan teaches children’s literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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