Author: Kenneth Oppel
Illustrator: Jim Tierney
Narrator: Nick Podehl
ISBN: 9781480584143 (audiobook), 9781442472884 (hardcover)
Pages: 332 pages
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 12 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brillance Audio, c2014. (audiobook), Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2014. (hardback)
Amidst the greenery the silver keychain is easy to spot. Will bends to pick it up. It holds only a single key, unusually thick, with plenty of notches. At once he recognizes it as the key to the funeral car — same as his father’s. The guard must have dropped it. Will pockets it.
He is hurrying back toward the shantytown to catch up with the guard, when he hears a grumble off to his right. Likely the fellow has fallen down again. Will wonders if he should tell his father. The guard’s clearly unfit for his post. Will walks through the trees in the direction of the noise. Through the thick foliage he catches a glimpse of the guard’s jacket. […]
The guard is pushed back against a tree, his eyes wide with surprise. A second man has an elbow against the guard’s throat and is pulling the knife from between his ribs. Will can’t tear his eyes from the knife, darkly wet. He feels like he’s been touched with something searingly cold. The man with the knife turns. (87-88)
In the last three years, Will’s life has a had a dramatic change ever since he and his father were involved in the laying of the last spike connecting the Canadian Railway from one side of the country to the other. Will is riding with his father on the longest and biggest train ever built, the Boundless, and in addition to all the passengers and a circus, there is also a funeral car for the manager of the railroad, who is intent on spending the rest of his days, even after death, riding the rails. Rumors fly about the treasures contained in the funeral car, and when the guard is murdered, Will protects the key but ends up isolated in the back of the train. His efforts to make it back to his father and authorities are thwarted again and again, and just when he thinks he can trust the circus folk, he learns their ringmaster might have his own motives for keeping Will and the key close.
This is the first book of Kenneth Oppel’s I’ve read, having missed his previous bestsellers. His other books will be going on the to be read pile if they are anything like this. His world building is fantastic, including descriptions of the train and details of the furnishings. Elaborate information about how technology of that day work are included, and I noticed little details like how the clothing buttons instead of zippers closed. There’s also pieces of magical realism that connect effortlessly with the story, with Sasquatches being very real, in addition to the Muskeg hag that bewitches people and magic tricks where you wonder if real magic is happening.
Will is a multifaceted character, gullible in the beginning but also suspicious once he gets the key. Originally intent on mimicking his father’s exploits and having an adventure of his own to tell people, he sets off to prove his abilities, both to others and to himself. We see him grow as a character, and assume some control over his life. I totally expected Mr. Dorian’s plot to go in a different direction, but that wasn’t the case, and I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed. If you are familiar with the classics, you may draw the same conclusions when you hear what Mr. Dorian is after. When Will finds himself in trouble again and again, his rescues and solutions do not strain credulity, and you’re left with a tale that makes you wonder “Could that have really happened?” Maren is also a capable and self-assured young lady who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go to great lengths to get it. Both Will and Maren think fast on their feet and play off the other’s strengths in order to help each person get what they want most, and their interactions with each other were highly entertaining.
Nick Podehl is probably at his best here, as he incorporates the global nature of the travelers, including accents and even a few words of Hindi. Although I can’t vouch for their accuracy, they sound authentic enough. For fans of trains, fantastical creatures, or just readers who are looking for the next great adventure, they are in for one wild ride.