As soon as I dug into The Boundless, I was immediately reminded of another book I’d read by Kenneth Oppel: Airborn. Both of the books feature young protagonists in worlds that are slightly a-kilter from our own. In the latter book, the world spun around large airships. In The Boundless, the world revolves around a five-mile long train, which the book is named after.
The opening chapter reminded me of a Jack London story, but maybe that was because of the character’s harsh circumstances. Young Will is the son of a man who is helping build Canada’s Transcontinental Railroad (with a story similar to the one in the United States) and seldom sees his father because he’s always gone.
I liked Will immediately because he’s an outcast and alone, struggling in a hardscrabble life but not jaded or jaundiced by it. And he’s got a skill that comes in handy throughout the novel: art.
Like a pulling engine on a train, the novel starts off kind of slow, then steadily gains steam. The action up in the mountains that results in a sasquatch attack (yes, they exist in this world!) and an avalanche is a set piece, in my opinion, but it sets up events that need to exist for the rest of the story to play out.
Then the book skips three years and plunges into Will’s new life. Things have gotten better for him in some respects, but now he finds himself at loggerheads with the father he so revered. The age-old struggle between fathers and sons plays out as one of the subplots, but that’s not where the action is focused.
Like the airships in Airborn, I love the feel of the world presented in The Boundless. The idea of a five-mile long train made up of hundreds of cars with thousands of people riding in them just boggles my mind, but Oppel makes it all come to vibrant life. Some details seem to get lost in the mix, though. I wasn’t sure where the colonists were going, or why exactly.
The circus background is really nice too and gave the train an extra exotic air that young readers will relish. The acts were interesting, but I wanted more background on the circus and the people. At that point of the story, though, The Boundless has gotten up a full head of steam and is plowing through the adventure while winding through snow-covered mountains. Embellishing those backgrounds would have broken the pacing, but it goes to show how real the author is able to make his characters and situations.
Young readers are going to have a blast plunging into Oppel’s and Will’s new world, and even seasoned armchair adventurers are going to get new facets to think about. The Ponce de Leon and “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” mythologies are nice additions and twisted in ways I hadn’t ever before considered.