A circus. A climactic battle atop a seven-mile long train. Automatons. Folklore-ic menace such as a hag who will drown you in her bog if you look into her eyes. Sasquatches. A train heist. An escape artist. A mesmerist. A plan to gain immortality. Rags to riches. Boy meets girl. Dreams to fight for. A villain willing to kill to get what he wants.
You have to hand it to Kenneth Oppel. In his newest Middle Grade (MG) novel, The Boundless, he throws around three or four novel’s worth of plot elements. But thanks to his consummate skill as a plotter, the novel never feels cluttered. And thanks to his skill as a writer, the reader is rewarded with more than simple (or not so simple) plot; we also get some winning characters to root for, some troubling complexities of ethics and morality, and some social criticism with regard to class and ethnic discrimination. All of which makes The Boundless a clear success.
The protagonist is young Will Everett, son of James Everett, a steel layer of the cross-continental railroad which is about to be completed across the virgin forest, cold slopes, muddy bogs, and wide plains of Canada — the longtime dream of Cornelius Van Horne. Will is there when the Golden Spike is driven in completing the railroad, and there as well three years later when the greatest train in human history, the titular Boundless, makes its maiden voyage across the country. But the Boundless carries a secret that it turns out people are willing to kill and perhaps die for, and when Will gets separated from his father, he must journey the entire 987-car length of the Boundless to not only avoid being killed himself, but save his father and maybe the entire train and the thousands riding in her.
He does so in the company of Maren, an escape artist and wire walker extraordinaire and Mr. Dorian, the mysterious head of the circus that employs Maren. But are they friends, allies of occasion, or something worse? Meanwhile, outside the train lurk the Hag, the Sasquatch, the Wendigo, though it is a close call as to whether they are any more dangerous than the humans Will must work with and against.
As already mentioned, the plot is full and expertly paced. There are lots of strongly dramatic scenes — avalanches, fight scenes, gun standoffs, and a truly epic battle atop the train that takes every such movie scene and amps it up five or ten times. There is also a more slow-paced but wonderfully creepy (all the more creepy for the slowness) scene involving the Hag of the Bog. With so many elements to work with, Oppel could easily have made this a breakneck paced novel stringing along one adventure after the other. But while “adventure is certainly the word for the novel, the author is wise enough to slow things down now and then and offer several quieter moments — either in moments between characters, such as Will and Maren or Will and his father, or in moments of introspection, as when Will has to look deep into himself to learn what sort of person he is. For as one might expect of an MG novel, his physical journey across the length of the train is mirrored by his internal journey from young boy to young man.
That story is just as engaging as the surface plot, and part of the reason for that is that Oppel has created in Will an easy character to fall right in with — one we like all the more for his mistakes, his uncertainties. Maren also easily wins over the reader, for her own personality, for her willingness to call Will out when she disagrees with him, her refusal to let him dictate her actions and the consequences. Mr. Dorian is a richly complex character, adding a nice bit of grey complexity to the story — one both roots for and against him simultaneously, a nice balancing act by Oppel. Even the villain, though stock on the surface, has his moments where an astute reader will (should) feel uncomfortable about a certain sense of “rightness” in some of what he says — he is not as easy to dismiss as “just evil” as some might like.
Certainly, some of those astute readers, and probably most adults, will find some of the plot predictable. But that doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of the journey all that much, if at all. To be honest, and this is something I almost never say, I wished Oppel had given us another 50 or so pages. I loved the folklore elements and would have liked to have seen more of those, and also wouldn’t have minded delving a bit more into some of the characters, some of the scenes and settings and thematic elements (such as his portrayal of discrimination against the poor, against Chinese laborers, the Metis, etc.).
In The Boundless, Oppel has given his readers a thrilling and suspenseful adventure tale bound to a good coming-of-age story, the combination laced through with serious social observation and set against a background of atmospheric and non-clichéd northern folklore. Strongly recommended.