Praise for Darkwing
Quill & Quire (starred review)
It’s 65 million years ago, the last dinosaurs are dying out, and Earth’s mammals are living in a time of dramatic upheaval. Dusk is a small tree glider – a chiropter – who discovers that unlike the rest of his clan, he can flap his wings rather than just use them to glide downwards. His ability to fly is thrilling, but it also marks him as different, and he avoids exile only because his father is leader. But after Dusk’s community is massacred by a pack of weasel-like mammals, his flying ability and his echovision prove critical to saving the colony from annihilation as he leads them on a dangerous journey to find a new home. In the process, he finds other chiropters who can fly like him: the first bats.
This is a thrilling page-turner that will captivate young and old alike. Oppel’s consummate skill at inhabiting the minds of non-human creatures is on stunning display here as Dusk’s story races from thrilling discoveries to heart-stopping perils. Like many of Oppel’s protagonists, Dusk is the outsider who struggles to find a place for himself in his world. But Dusk’s story is interwoven with that of Carnassial, the newly evolved meat-eater whose determination to survive and dominate mirrors that of other creatures in this turbulent world and complicates the moral landscape of the novel. Dusk’s deep attachment to his mother, father, and loyal sister Sylph adds depth to his character and emotional resonance to the story of his quest for belonging. Fans of the Silverwing series will find this prequel immensely satisfying and will be clamouring for more.
Booklist (starred review)
In his Silverwing series Oppel spun a contemporary fantasy about the world of bats. In this ambitious new stand-alone fantasy, he turns the clock back 65 million years to imagine the world of the bats’ earliest ancestors, which he calls “chiropters.” These tree-dwelling creatures are flightless, using their wings (which they call “sails”) to glide through the air, from tree to tree. Only Dusk, youngest son of the colony’s leader, has made an evolutionary leap; not only can he fly, he can also see at night, using echo vision. Predictably, the others regard him as a mutant to be shunned—all but his father, who wisely considers his son’s differences as gifts. Dusk’s real nemesis, however, is a beast (a “felid”) called Carnassial, who is the first of his kind to be carnivorous, and like Dusk, is shunned by his own. Clearly the world is poised on the brink of remarkable change, and the future belongs to these two. Oppel writes with keen insight and empathy about the condition of being “other” in the context of a richly plotted, fast-paced story that—though sometimes too heavily anthropomorphized—is captivating reading from beginning to end.
The Globe & Mail
The metaphor at the heart of Darkwing is flight, but that only means it's a Kenneth Oppel novel. Oppel used lighter-than-air vehicles as the setting for his award-winning Airborn and its sequel, Skybreaker, and has written a trilogy of books, the Silverwing Saga, in which the characters are modern-day bats. And although ancient winged mammals might not seem like promising literary material, Oppel's storytelling skills bring them vividly to life.
Darkwing takes place some 65 million years ago, in the early Paleocene epoch, not long (geologically speaking) after the extinction event that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. Prior to this time, mammals were small creatures scuttling under the feet and claws of the "saurians," as Oppel calls them. But now saurians have grown scarce, and mammals are expanding into newly vacated ecological niches. Insectivores are becoming carnivores; carnivores are competing for food and territory. In the real world, this was an evolutionary process extending over millions of years. In Darkwing, Oppel cleverly depicts these biological changes as personal and political events in the lives of his characters: His early Paleocene is the end of a long-standing era of co-existence, the beginning of an age of war between tribes of previously peaceful "Beasts."
Oppel's hero is Dusk, a newborn in a colony of chiropters, the predecessors of true bats. The chiropters nest in trees, using their claws to climb the bark and their sails (not yet wings) to glide from branch to branch. Dusk is different from the other newborns in his colony. He doesn't look like his siblings. His sails are huge and hairless, his claws are comparatively weak. More distressingly, he has an almost irresistible urge to flap his wings and fly like a bird. Shunned by some in his colony, Dusk is defended and protected by his father, Icarion, the colony's leader, and by his loyal sister Sylph.
Times are changing for other animals in the Paleocene forest, too. We follow the parallel story of Carnassial, a primitive cat-like creature who defies his "prowl" of fellow felids and violates the Pact of the Beasts by indulging a taste for red meat. Carnassial is a hunter and killer, and he takes a number of like-minded rebellious felids with him in search of fresh hunting grounds.
The territory Carnassial discovers is the island where Dusk's chiropter colony nests in a towering redwood. Unfortunately for Dusk, Carnassial and his kind have a cat-like ability to climb trees. The chiropter colony is decimated by their attack, and Dusk's wounded father attempts to lead the surviving chiropters to a new and safer home on the mainland. But a safe haven is hard to find in this fierce new world in which "the big animals eat the little ones," as Sylph observes, and "the clever ones trick the stupid ones." Moreover, the dreaded saurians aren't entirely extinct; a few live on, stalked by disease and resentful of the Beasts' pact to hunt down and destroy saurian eggs in the nest.
In Airborn, Oppel created an imaginary milieu so vivid it seemed to invite the reader to explore it. In Darkwing, he pulls off the same trick against greater odds. The Paleocene wilderness his characters inhabit is fully imagined and strangely beautiful. Its Beasts are many and various: We meet "tree runners," for instance, probably the early primate ancestors of monkeys and humans (and not a particularly flattering portrait). The characters experience different aspects of their world according to their natures: Carnassial's scent-rich forest floor is a world apart from Dusk's airy tree-tops, and Dusk's sense of echolocation is a sensory experience distinct from Carnassial's feline night-vision.
But it's the characters who make the story, and they are characters in the fullest sense, well-drawn and appealing, whether they flap, glide or walk on all fours. Icarion, Dusk's father, is a kind of chiropter pacifist, shunned by groups of less scrupulous chiropters for his unwillingness to destroy even the eggs of the dreaded saurians. This may or may not have been a wise strategy on Icarion's part: There are dissenters in the colony, including Sylph, and Dusk has to grapple not only with his own outsider status but with a series of troubling revelations about his family's history and his colony's idealistic origins. Ethical decisions aren't simple in an increasingly carnivorous world.
You might expect these frankly human concerns to fit awkwardly into a story about ... well, bats, more so because Oppel's bats really are bats: They not only eat insects, they savour the crunch and taste of them; they mate and mark their territory in bat-like fashion. But Dusk's fears and longings are all the more real because they're anchored in his animal nature.
Considered purely as story, Darkwing is stripped-down and efficient. The suspense kicks in immediately, and the final chapters - featuring poisonous sorcids, hyena-like carnivores, and a race through a dead saurian's rib cage - are as tautly written as anything in a contemporary thriller. Just as compelling is the protagonist's struggle to find self-respect, independence and a place in a world distorted by violence and sweeping changes.
As alien as Kenneth Oppel's Paleocene forest may seem, it does bear some resemblance to our own chaotic and treacherous century. But these parallels are not explicitly drawn, nor do they need to be. Darkwing, at heart, is simply an exciting novel about bats - with a few subtle lessons for us wingless mammals, too.
Kirkus (starred review)
Dusk is a misfit in his colony, a freak. He has only two claws instead of three, weak legs, unusually strong chest and shoulder muscles and the ability to see in the dark. And where other chiropters glide, he has the urge to flap his sails. He is a pre-bat, perched on a new branch of evolution. In the age when the saurians are dying out and mammals are on the rise, Dusk is a new kind of animal, and his is the story of the misfit finding the courage to spread his wings and fly. When his colony is attacked by a prowl of rogue felids led by the evil Carnassial, Dusk uses his skills to lead the survivors to a new homeland, with many adventures along the way. Rich sensory details bring to life the Paleocene epoch of 65 million years ago—the steamy heat, heady fragrances, giant sequoias and vast grasslands. Lively prose and sheer imagination make Oppel’s fourth bat story another winner.
Kliatt (starred review)
In this companion to Oppel's prize-winning fantasies about bats, Silverwing, Sunwing, and Firewing, he imagines what the origins of modern day bats might be. The setting is the early Paleocene epoch, 65 million years ago. Dinosaurs are dying out, and mammals are increasing in number. Small creatures called chiropters live in trees and glide like flying squirrels from branch to branch, but among them a mutant is born named Dusk, who has the ability to fly and to see in the dark. When catlike predators called felids arrive on their idyllic island, led by a vicious hunter named Carnassial, Dusk must guide his companions to safety in a new environment. Filled with adventures and characters both sympathetic and fearsome, this exciting fantasy convincingly brings to life a long-ago world at a time of rapid change.