by Kenneth Oppel
Darkwing is a Cybils nominee.
Dusk is a chiropter, a small prehistoric mammal with a flap of skin attached to his arms that enables him to glide through the air. But Dusk is different from the other chiropters; his legs are weak, making it difficult for him to climb trees, and his chest and shoulders are freakishly large and bulky. But the differences go beyond appearance, as Dusk discovers that, unlike the other chiropters, he can “see” in the dark using his echolocation. And even more astonishing: he can fly! Dusk’s parents love and encourage him in spite of his differences, but not everyone in the colony is as tolerant, and Dusk is often shunned for his differences.
Meanwhile, another mammal, a felid named Carnassial, discovers that he has a taste for meat. The various species of beasts, including felids and chiropters, have always been allies; they have a pact to work together to destroy the last of the saurians, or dinosaurs, by finding the nests and destroying the eggs. Now that the saurians are apparently wiped from the earth, Carnassial and some of his fellow felids do the unthinkable: they turn on their fellow beasts and begin to hunt and eat them.
When Carnassial’s prowl attacks Dusk’s colony, the colony flees its home. But in a world growing increasingly crowded, will the colony be able to find a new home? Dusk’s abilities may be able to help the colony, but will they learn to accept him, or will Dusk become an outcast?
I found Darkwing to be excessively violent and fairly disturbing. There’s definitely a Darwinian theme running through the book; everything seems to be killing and eating everything else. That wouldn’t be too bad, however, except for the way the carnivores, and especially Carnassial, are portrayed. The theme of the book seems to be accepting who you are, and that even carnivores are a part of nature. Yet, all of the carnivores are depicted as evil, which makes you question whether it really is natural. And the scene where Carnassial first yields to his impulses and kills one of his fellow beings has a high “yuk” factor; it’s a disturbing scene that made me think of a serial killer making his first kill.
If you can overlook the violence, Darkwing is a fairly readable and enjoyable book. The story of the colony’s search for a new home is entertaining and exciting, and readers will engage with “Ugly Duckling” Dusk and his family. I particularly liked that Dusk’s family loves and supports him in spite of his differences. I think that too often this kind of books portrays parents who reject or poorly treat a child who is “different” for the sake of dramatic tension, but it was refreshing to see a loving family trying to support their child. Readers of animal fantasy who aren’t disturbed by the violence, and especially fans of Oppel’s other books, will probably enjoy Darkwing.