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The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
Book Name: The Boundless
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher(s): Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Historical Fantasy
Release Date: April 22, 2014

Will Everett has spent a long time wishing adventure would find him, but when it does it’s not quite what he expects. In one eventful day he meets the rail baron Cornelius Van Horne, drives the final golden spike into the first coast-to-coast railway in Canada, witnesses the attempted robbery of the same rail spike, sees a sasquatch, and meets a girl from a circus.

Three years later Will Everett is a wealthy young man still searching for adventure. His father rose through the ranks to become the manager of a branch of the railroad company, but Will feels stuck. He’s a guest on the Boundless, the longest and most opulent train in Canada, which will make its maiden voyage from coast to coast on the tracks he finished three years ago. The golden spike is also on the train, carried secretly in the funeral car of Cornelius Van Horne. In confidence, James Everett tells his son that there are only two keys to the funeral car, the one carried by the guard, and the one tucked into his own pocket.

From the very beginning Oppel sets up a tense dynamic between father and son. Will’s father wants him to start working in the company when they reach their new home, but all Will wants to do is go to art school, something his business-minded father refuses to support. There’s clearly love and trust on both sides, but not much understanding. They spend an uncomfortable evening together until the after dinner show, which turns out to be Mr. Dorian, a man Will met three years ago with Van Horne.

Mr. Dorian is the owner of Zirkus Dante. He hypnotizes members of the crowd, performs some sleight of hand, and draws their attention to a little hiccup in the flow of time as the train crosses time zones. Then he brings out his assistant the Miraculous Maren, Zirkus Dante’s escape artist, and selects Will to tie her up.

This is the first turning point of the novel, for the Miraculous Maren is, of course, the girl Will met three years ago, who did a handstand, took his sasquatch tooth, and disappeared. Will has never forgotten her, but when he tries to speak to her after the show she disappears again, this time into the Second Class carriages, where he is forbidden to go.

Soon however, Maren is the least of his worries. In a quick and entertaining series of events Will finds himself on the run across the tops of the train cars, guarding one of the two keys to the funeral car from a ruthless thief. The second turning point of the novel comes when he escapes – by falling into a train car that contains a confused and agitated sasquatch named Goliath.

Oppel inserts a great deal of quiet humor into his story, but it’s often the kind you’d expect to see in an old, black and white Marx Brothers movie. There is a lot of slapstick, which comes across well only if you’re the kind of reader who visualizes everything while reading. The running gag about sasquatch urine was one of my personal favorite jokes, but I think it might play out better on screen than in novel form.

This is true of much of The Boundless. I loved the book, and thought it was well-written, imaginative, and fun, but it felt like the wrong medium. A book about the circus needs a descriptive writing style, so that the reader can experience the same wonder and confusion the characters do as they go from tent to tent, or in this case, from train car to train car. I thought The Boundless fell a little short on this front, mostly because it couldn’t seem to decide what to focus on. Will, the circus, and the train itself are all major parts of the story, with significant honorable mention to the Canadian scenery, the villains, Maren, Mr. Dorian, and a cast of colorful circus types. In a movie the scenery and background is just there, no description necessary. In a book the splitting of focus required to write all of those separate elements results in something lackluster.

The Boundless tries to be too many things at once. It tries to be a coming-of-age story, a childlike romp in an amazing and confusing new world, a murder mystery, a historical fantasy with elements of Oscar Wilde, and a Victorian Indiana Jones all at the same time. It’s just too much to pay attention to at the same time.

Despite these shortcomings, it succeeds in many ways. The setting itself – a huge train barreling through the untracked Canadian wilderness – was breathtaking. I loved the inclusion of such mythical creatures as the sasquatch and the Muskeg Hag. There’s not a lot of obvious magic, but the more you pay attention the more you find in the details. Mr. Dorian’s skill at hypnosis and time manipulation is subtle and lovely, and the combination of magic and machine in several automatons was just enough of a nod to steampunk to make me grin.

In addition to all of these critical reasons, the book was just fun. There are nighttime footraces across the tops of moving train cars, and a girl who walks on tightropes more safely than the ground. There’s a fabulous golden treasure hidden away, and a villain who is decidedly villainous. There is a lot of humor and an equal amount of tension, and not everyone gets an entirely happy ending.

I liked the slow, quiet style in which the book was written, and I liked the characters and plot. I think it needed a little more focus and a little more description. As Victorian magical circus books go it’s not quite the quality of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, but it is certainly a charming addition to the genre.


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