Book Review: The Boundless, Kenneth Oppel

There are three things I love unabashedly and wholeheartedly: Cats, books, and trains. My love for cats is probably pretty obvious, and books might be fairly evident as well, but my love of trains isn’t as widely known. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved trains. One of my first vaguely grownup books was a history of trains in the West, and I read it over and over until it was tattered and the pages were soft and spongy. I read everything I could get my hands on about trains, talked about them at great length to anyone who would listen, and my father bought me a model train for my birthday one year. I relished opportunities to ride trains large and small — something tough to do when we lived in Greece and difficult in the rural area we moved to when we came back to the States.

Whenever I have a chance, I ride a train. I’ll even settle for BART and Metro in a pinch, but what I really love is a good train, and one of my long-term goals is to take a train cross-country, and to go on a train tour of Europe, proper style, with a suite and hatboxes and giant steamer trunks. It’s rare that I get all three of these things together, as while cats go well with books and books go well with cats, cats do not go well with trains — there’s a pretty small area of the Venn diagram that includes all three. But books and trains, now. You can read books on trains and you can read books about trains and you can read books about trains on trains.

So let’s talk, for a moment, about Kenneth Oppel’s The Boundlesswhich Emily made me read in her ongoing quest to get me to read more middle grade fiction — a story for another time. I picked it up because I was intrigued by the cover, but the story made me even more delighted. What happens when the longest train known to the history of humanity sets off on its first voyage across the country? When that train is so long that it takes miles to get from end to end, and the mighty locomotive that pulls it is massive, with a vast tender car behind it to fuel it? And what happens, as is required with any book about a train, when someone is murdered?

The murder on a train trope is well established, but, here’s the thing: It continues to be awesome. It’s got the elements of a locked room mystery, because presumably people aren’t hopping on and off the train (depending on the setting), but it’s a moving locked room! It’s a train! There’s a dining car and there are fancy suites and there’s a locomotive! And it’s imperative to solve the mystery before the train arrives at its destination, or the murderer will slip off into the crowd, impossible to trace. There’s a time pressure there as the characters scrabble amongst each other to identify who among them would commit the dastardly deed.

Will Everett is a young man who comes up from nothing, and we get to watch his rise. At the start, his father is a worker on the transcontinental railroad, and he’s invited to see the placement of the golden spike, but everything quickly goes awry with an avalanche, a horde of mythical creatures, and a desperate railroad magnate. After Will and his father swing in to action, they’re richly rewarded, his father given a well-paying job higher in the ranks of the railroad that sweeps Will out of a life of poverty. (We’ll set aside, for a moment, the fact that rags to riches stories always bother me because I find myself thinking of who is left behind, and I focus on the narrative of either happenstance or ‘hard work,’ neither of which is an accurate reflection of how people become wealthy and powerful.)

When Will sets off with his father on the grand voyage of the most epic, splendid train ever designed, neither imagines that they’ll be plunged into a plot of murder, mayhem, sneaking away under the guise of a circus performer, and more. This book hits basically everything delightful ever that a book should hit, with a fantastic wirewalker (Maren), a mysterious ringmaster, evil brakemen, and more. It’s precisely the sort of thing that middle grade readers should fall in love with, so if you happen to know any, kick this book their way.

It’s also a pretty fun adult read. I like reading train mysteries and I freely admit that, but I also like seeing authors play with young characters and watching them develop. Intriguingly, middle grade fiction is a genre where characters grow perhaps more quickly and more rapidly than in any other genre — they’re making the leap from childhood into young adulthood, and they’re learning lessons fast and furious as they attempt to adjust to their new lives. In The Boundless, Will has both painful and excellent lessons to learn, and they make him a stronger, more whole, more rounded character by the end of the book.

When I read texts like The Boundless, I’m reminded of myself at that age and of the frustrating divide between child and teen, between youth and being taken seriously. It’s absolutely infuriating when you’re there and adults patronise and ignore you while kids only a few years older than you lord it over you as though they’re initiates into some kind of arcane, mysterious knowledge. The Boundless is not just about solving a mystery and penetrating a locked room, but also about breaking free of childhood and understanding what others have been talking about.