‘Who … Who are you?’
This made Zeina bristle. He had seen her just as many times as she had seen him and yet he had no idea who she was. This was just like Aboves; people like Zeina were merely part of the scenery – completely forgettable.
‘Who am I? NOBODY, that’s who!’ She knew she could get into trouble for talking to him this way. After all, he was technically her father’s employer.
This isn’t the first time that Zeina and Jackson have met. But this time when they run into each other – literally – will turn out to be the most important.
Zeina is a Below, and an engineer’s daughter, her dad working for the Willoughby chain of hotels. They live high enough so that the gigantic sky whales that the hotels are built on can dock for repair work, but still below the smog line, where life is hard.
Meanwhile Jackson is an Above and the future heir to the Willoughby fortune, a child who lacks not for material wealth, but is emotionally neglected. He wants to be a velocycle racer, not a business magnate to a chain of flying hotels; not that his parents would know this, since they’re never around.
And then, Zeina’s wildest dream comes true – she wins a ticket to Jackson’s birthday party, hosted by his uncle Hector, with the fabulous explorer (and Zeina’s personal hero) Vivien Steele due to make an appearance!
However, when Zeina and Jackson get the opportunity to go with Vivien on a jaunt to catch a sky whale for a new hotel, Jackson starts to realise that something is very wrong…
This is a cracking debut novel from Durkan, one that makes you think about money, class division, pollution, and what’s really important in life. It’s set in a world that is futuristic, but still eminently believable.
The idea behind the story is that there are Aboves and Belows – the people who live above the smog line, in beautiful apartments, and those who live below the smog line, with the dirt and the trash, having to wear respirators just to breathe.
High above the smog line is where you find the sky whales; magnificent and wild creatures that swim through the sky in pods, communicating via intricate lines and patterns on their skin. And the perfect size for giant, flying hotels, which is what the Willoughby company specialise in.
However, not everyone is happy that these majestic creatures are torn away from their families when young, subdued, built upon, and then paraded around the sky on tourist routes like cruise ships for the wealthy elite. The Smog Rats are an environmentalist group, known for raiding the hotels and freeing the whales, and deemed terrorists and outlaws by the Aboves. They also have a certain secret up their sleeve, one that I won’t spoil here!
The idea of sky whales is a brilliant one, and the way the hotels are built to utilise but also encase them is dastardly in its ingenuity. At this point I have to mention the cover artwork by George Ermos, which gives you a great idea of what the sky whale hotels could look like. The colours he uses are gorgeous, showing the Above and the smog in striking contrasts of purples and an almost sickly combination of greens and yellows.
Our young protagonists (you can see Zeina on the front cover) could not be more different. Despite being the wealthy heir, Jackson is unlike his Above counterparts. He’s quiet and shy, and very self-contained – he doesn’t even want a birthday party, as he knows his parents won’t show up for it anyway.
Meanwhile, Zeina is headstrong, knowing that if you want to get anywhere you have to do so yourself. This is partly why she’s so drawn to Vivien, who was born Below too, and worked hard to make something of herself. By the end though, Jackson and Zeina have grown to understand one another, and recognise that they both have something to give to the friendship.
The adults in their lives are also vastly different. Jackson’s parents are absent, so we are introduced to his uncle Hector who runs the company while they’re away. He’s loathsome and arrogant; he knows that their society produces the smog, but sees no need to change it since they’re making money. Conversely, Zeina’s dad is very committed to his beliefs, and works hard to balance that with his work and his role as a parent. Although he is protective of Zeina, he also recognises her skills and is incredibly proud of her.
I won’t spoil anything about Vivien, but it’s safe to say she is not what she seems. As it turns out, neither are the Smog Rats – but that’s all I’ll tell you here! All of the characters have motivations and complexities that really ground them in the story.
The world Durkan gives us is detailed and in-depth; a believably futuristic, almost post-apocalyptic, society where money can get you anything. This is cut through with recognisable social commentary that many of the ‘Aboves’ have not only caused the issues, but will perpetuate them so long as it keeps them earning, while the rest simply don’t know or care.
The parallels to our own world (smog being caused from burning ore), and the metaphor of the sky whales for how we treat our planet, aren’t subtle – but they don’t need to be. Making the causes and effects clear from the outset means the story is actually more effective and compelling. It’s no wonder that Durkan won the Hachette Children’s Novel Award for Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale as part of the Northern Writers’ Awards in 2020.
Overall, it’s one heck of a debut. The descriptions are excellent, the characters relatable (in both good, and bad ways), and the concept is enticing. The story itself is thrilling, with many twists and turns (and definitely some surprises!), while the environmentalist theme is relevant and understandable for any age. It’s a great adventure for ages 9 and up, in a world that isn’t quite ours, but perhaps isn’t so far off. Although we can’t say we’ve seen any flying whales yet…
If you like the sound of Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale, you can grab a copy at the link below.
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Thank you to Hachette for sending us this copy to review!
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