With Silverwing, Kenneth Oppel creates a fascinating world of bats, complete with a creation myth, a social hierarchy, and a troubled history as a creature that falls somewhere between the warring factions of mammals and birds. The cover illustration, subject matter and presence of cannibalistic vampire bats make this sound like a very dark story. But it is not. It is full of carefully drawn characters who show curiosity, compassion and bravery as well as foolishness, laziness and cowardice.
Shade, the main character, a Silverwing bat and the runt of the newborns, is curious, defiant and eager to prove himself. He is also desperate to learn anything about his father, Cassiel, who has disappeared and is believed to be dead. Shade lives with his mother, Ariel, and the rest of the Silverwing community in Tree Haven, the warm weather nursery for the colony. Within the first few pages of the book, Shade breaks the time honored code that keeps an uneasy peace between owls and bats: bats are not allowed to be out of their roost when the sun rises, if they are, they will be hunted by the owls as fair game. Sensing his inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge, Frieda, the chief elder of the colony who has a silver band on her arm, takes Shade to visit the Echo Chamber, a smooth walled cavern deep within Tree Haven where the bats have sung the history of the colony ever year since its inception. There he learns that this agreement with the owls stems from an incident that occurred millions and millions of years ago as well as a prophecy that promises freedom for the bats.
Unfortunately, this day does not come before Shade decides to see the sunrise and incurs the wrath of the owls. When his mother and Frieda refuse to turn him over to the owls as compensation for breaking the law, the owls set Tree Haven on fire. The bats take wing, flying south to Stone Hold, their hibernaculum. Shade's journey is altered when a storm separates him from his mother. But, not before she sings him an echo map teaching him the landmarks to look for as they travel to Stone Hold since, as a newborn, Shade has never migrated before. Shade is befriended by Marina, a banded Brightwing bat who has been exiled from her colony because of the silver band on her leg. The bands and what each colony believes they represent, whether a good sign or a bad omen, is one of the fascinating mysteries that thread through this book and ultimately accounts for the climax. Other characters in the book include Zephyr, a blind, albino bat with a star map on his wings and the knowledge to heal with herbs, Scirocco, a bat who interprets the Promise to mean that bats will become human and walk on two legs and Romulus and Remus, sewer rat kings.
But, this is just the beginning. There are three more books that follow the lives of the bats. While this is normally not the kind of book I would choose to read, I was drawn to it when I first saw it ten years ago - maybe it was the cover art, done by SD Schindler, who illustrated the Cat Wings Quartet by Ursula le Guin. Nevertheless, I was won over by the humanity and compassion of the bats and their struggles. Kenneth Oppel's true gift is writing fantasy that is firmly set in reality, while also bringing new worlds to life. If you have readers who don't mind a 500+ page book, I strongly recommend his trilogy Airborn, Skybreaker and Starclimber. Oppel has created an alternate universe where the skies are ruled by luxury airships and an unknown creature that lives in the clouds. Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries are the well written, teenage characters who drive, um, fly, the plot...