My nine-year-old son recently read Darkwing, an older book by Kenneth Oppel, and has been after me to read it myself because he thought I’d enjoy it and because he wanted to share the experience and talk about it. I’m glad he kept on me, because Darkwing was one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this past year. My son clearly thought so as well, since he had me read it aloud to him (including a two-hours-straight stretch) from the halfway point on, even though he’d just read it a few weeks earlier. That’s perhaps the best recommendation I can give.
Before Darkwing Oppel had already penned a contemporary fantasy series with bats as characters: Sunwing, Silverwing, and Firewing. One could call Darkwing a prequel, but it’s got to be the earliest prequel I’ve ever seen: it’s set way back in the Paleocene epoch, just as the dinosaurs are dying out. This prehistoric setting is a great choice.
The main character is Dusk, a young member of a colony of small mammalian tree-gliders called chiropters, who live on a small island connected at low tide to the mainland by a sandbar. Dusk is something different than a chiropter though: his “sails” are hairless and in usage act more like wings, and he also can see at night using echoes. His colony shuns him as a freak, save for his loyal sister, his loving mother, and his stern father, who is also the colony’s leader. At first Dusk hides his differences as much as possible, then he is forbidden to use his new gifts. The early part of the story deals with his attempts to find his place in his society.
Meanwhile, other changes are rocking the world. As mentioned, the dinosaurs are dying off and along with disease and changing climate, one of the reasons given is the Pact — an agreement made by many of the beasts to work together to break (or eat) all the saurian eggs they could find. With the dinosaurs gone, the other beasts’ populations are quickly growing and territory and food are becoming issues. Among the felids — small cat-like weasels — one named Carnassial has, like Dusk, evolved. He has become a meat-eater. When Carnassial splits off with his own pack, this event, along with the growing tensions over food and space, starts to weaken the alliance among the beasts.
Soon, Dusk and his colony are fighting for their lives: against birds grown suddenly aggressive, against Carnassial and his pack, and against new threats never seen before. Forced to leave their island refuge, the colony must make a journey to a new home where they can find safety again. And Dusk must figure out where he belongs.
The setting is absolutely fascinating as drawn. The creatures are all interesting in their own right, but especially so as nearly all are precursors of some well-known animal today, so part of the fun is in cataloging the differences between these early versions and our modern ones. Oppel does an excellent job as well in depicting a world in turmoil, one where the old rules no longer apply and new ones must be forged.
The plot is filled with suspense throughout as Dusk and his colony face danger after danger. Sometimes the danger is short, dramatic and action-packed, such as an attack by carnivores on their tree home. Sometimes it is drawn out in terrifyingly slow fashion, as when they must try and make their crossing to the mainland (remember chiropters cannot fly; they can only glide short distances and then must find another height to launch themselves from). Sometimes the danger is obvious; sometimes it is hidden. But it is always present. And it is real — Oppel doesn’t shy away from death in this book; characters die and their deaths are painful, both physically for them and emotionally for the reader. There is also real depth to this plot, as the journey unfolds complexities of morality and ethics, challenging the characters and the reader with difficult situations and refusing to offer up easy or blithe answers.
But by far the strongest aspect of Darkwing, which is saying something since the setting and plot are so good, is the characterization. Dusk is simply a wonderful creation: caught in a literal in-between world of youth and adulthood and chiropter and bat. It’s a great dual construction. You never forget he is a bat (true of all the animal characters btw) — he revels in the crunch of insects, for instance — but he feels like a fully realized human character in most of his fears and hopes. You feel his pain at being shunned, at losing “people” important to him, his exhilaration at flight coupled with shame and dismay at how it makes him different, and so on. His coming of age is filled with all the pain and stutter steps backwards and forwards and joys and heights and depths of a real person; it never makes a false move.
The other characters are equally strong. His father could have been the stereotypical stern father — and he is stern — but he has many layers to him, both good and bad, some surprising. His sister too is a delight in her richness of development, always loyal to Dusk even while she disagrees with him (and her father) on most issues. Carnassial could have been a simplistic villain, but Oppel, as he does with Dusk, makes him come alive in three dimensions. One of the sharpest pangs I had in the book involved Carnassial. That’s a skillful move by an author and a sign of success. Smaller side characters, no matter how briefly we meet them, are treated with the same degree of craftsmanship. Oppel takes no lazy shortcuts here.
I find myself wanting to go on here, to detail other characters, specific plot points, and I could go on and on and on, so I won’t. Suffice to say that had this been a 2011 book, Darkwing would have shot immediately to the top of my Best of the Year YA/children’s list and would as well be in my Best of the Year general list, which is not easy for a children’s book to break into. I’ll offer up just one more sign of how good this was. The copy my son and I read was a library book on which, because he had read it first and it took me a while to get to, we had maxed out our renewals. After we finished it (remember, his second time around) and we got ready to return it, he wanted to know if we could return it on whichever library card we’d maxed it out on but check it out again immediately with one of our other family cards. I told him I’d just buy it. And I did.