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During an epic journey across Canada on The Boundless, an incredible seven-mile-long train, Will witnesses a murder and is saved from the same fate by a circus troupe.
He enlists the help of the circus performers - including the mysterious ringmaster Mr Dorian and Maren, a gifted escape artist among them - to help him save the train and the treasures it holds.
Along the way he confronts many dangers and a range of mythical and fantastical creatures, from a sasquatch to the mysterious hag who roams the muskeg.
Author Kenneth Oppel tells us more about writing fantasy, visiting the past for inspiration and creating the 'Titanic of trains'!
He writes: "I think that fantasies work best if they're built on a foundation of realism. When I wrote my Silverwing books, I did a lot of research of bats so I knew how they flew and hunted and migrated and communicated; and a great deal of the bat information in the book is factual. I think my readers were intrigued to learn more about these mysterious nocturnal creatures, but I also needed this foundation of fact to earn their trust so that they believed me later when my bats started doing things no bat could possibly do.
It was the same with my Airborn trilogy, fantasies set aboard giant airships. I read up on the real airships of the 1930s, like the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, pored over blueprints, studied the physics of lighter-than-air flight. My world is an alternate Edwardian one, which at first blush seems perfectly realistic and familiar -- the clothes and cars and cities -- except that there is a new element called hydrium (lighter even than hydrogen); airplanes have never been invented; and there is a fabulously rich and sometimes deadly ecosystem in our skies.
I personally prefer fantasies in which the fantasy itself is doled out sparingly. Too many wondrous things and they start to lose their wonder. It's just another talking tree, or weird elf, or magical gem. But if there are only one or two fantastical elements in the story I think they stand out as truly marvelous and exciting. And they seem all the more miraculous because they exist within the fabric of a realistic world. How much more intriguing and wonderful for a young reader to imagine that such things might exist in his or her very own world?
So with The Boundless I began with a train, in the era of the great transcontinental railroads of North America. It was a vital time of great social change and technological advance -- and I decided to make the world even more exciting by inventing the Titanic of trains, on its maiden voyage across Canada. The train is a rolling city, 11 kilometres long, carrying over 6000 passengers. It carries the wealthy in opulent double decker carriages, and the poorest in carriages little better than cattle cars.
The fantasy comes with the sheer size of the train, but also from the fascinating facts and folklore of the Canadian landscape and history. In my world, the sasquatch is as much a fact of the mountain landscape as a cougar or grizzly. The muskeg, a treacherous stretch of bog that eats track, also contains a mysterious hag who lures people off the train to their deaths. And there are time zones, just newly invented, which seem to have curious effects whenever you cross through them. There is also, of course, a travelling circus, whose ringmaster may or may not be a real magician -- and a painting, which may or may not have miraculous properties. I leave a fair amount up to the reader.
Tastes in fantasy are always changing. In just a decade we've gone from the wizardry of Harry Potter to a fascination with the paranormal (vampires, werewolves, angels and demons) to a preoccupation with dystopias. Right now young readers can't seem to get enough of the world ending: alien takeovers, tyrannical regimes, zombies, ecological disasters.
This latest trend might in part be a response to real world threats: global warming, pandemics, terrorism, war, drought, famine. But there have always been dire threats (in the 20th century alone we had two World Wars, horrific genocides, a cold war, and the threat of global nuclear annihilation) so this trend can't be due to headlines alone. And in some ways, you could argue that right now the First World has never been safer or more prosperous. So why all the angst?
Maybe it's actually a sign of our affluence and safety that we have to imagine these extreme scenarios to give us a jolt of peril and excitement. Having said that, the world's a very complicated place, and we're always looking for escape. Many dystopian fantasies now present a simplified moral universe in which the bad guys are so clearly evil (sadistic tyrants, genocidal aliens or zombies) that it's easier to identify and root for the good guys.
Personally, I tend to dislike characters who are starkly good or evil -- I find it dull and unrealistic. People are a wonderful and bewildering mix of things, and I do try to use as much of the human palette as possible when painting my own characters. I've got a pretty good bad guy in The Boundless, but I like to think I've given him some humanizing moments that earn a flutter (maybe a very little flutter) of sympathy from the reader.
When I read I like to be taken somewhere new, and see the world fresh through someone else's eyes. And when I write, I try to do the same for my readers. The Boundless, with its epic cross-country journey, and car-jumping heroes, gave me lots of opportunities to create new worlds and exciting experiences. It's not a coincidence that one of my main characters is an escape artist."