Airborn is the first book in the trilogy of the same name, written by Canadian Kenneth Oppel. The plot centers around 15-year-old cabin boy Matt Cruse, who works aboard the airship Aurora in a Steampunk Alternate History close to our world in The Edwardian Era. One night on duty in the crow's nest, Matt spots and rescues a drifting hot-air balloon with one passenger: a mysterious old man mumbling about "beautiful creatures" who shortly after dies. One year later, the wealthy Kate de Vries and her chaperone board the ship, Kate determined to prove the old man (her grandfather) right. The Aurora is soon scuttled on a tropical island by air pirates, and Kate and Matt discover that the creatures do in fact exist. In the two later books, Skybreaker and Starclimber, they go on to explore other extreme environments and make important scientific discoveries.
As the series goes on, Matt and Kate strike up a romance, which has to be kept hidden as they belong to different social classes. Much drama and reflection is drawn from his bitterness over having to provide for his family and her naivete to what the life of the working-class is really like. There are many other real-world issues and concepts dwelled on, such as the space race, early feminism and suffragettes, and clean energy sources.
Other supporting characters include Marjorie Simpkins, Kate's fumbling chaperone; Vikram Spirzglas, notorious Sky Pirate; Captain Walken, captain of the Aurora; Nadira, the mysterious gypsy; and Hal Slater, Bruce Lunardi, and James Sanderson, all Matt's rivals for Kate's affections at one time or another.
In-universe, airships are a completely viable mode of transportation because of a fictional gas called "hydrium" which is even lighter than helium and makes it next-to-no-effort to stay aloft. Vancouver, known as "Lionsgate City", is known as the airship capital of the world.
Many real-life people or places are alluded to, mostly through slightly changed names; "Amelia Gearhart", "Evelyn Karr", etc.
- The Ace: Bruce Lunardi and Hal Slater; both turn out to be not quite as successful as they appear.
- Alternate History: The fictional world's timeline seems to have diverged with ours in the late 1800's.
- Applied Phlebotinum: Hydrium gas. The narration notes that it's even lighter than hydrogen.
- Badass: Captain Walken can handle any problem, can calm angry passengers, and could easily stand up to pirates with only one gun. And compliment your hair at the same time.
- Big Fancy House: Kate's "small flat".
- Canada, Eh?: Averted; most of the cast is Canadian, but it's hardly ever mentioned and if it wasn't specified you'd just assume they were American.
- Cool Ship: Aurora, Skybreaker, Starclimber... pretty much all of them.
- The Starclimber's classification as a 'ship' is debatable...
- Crowning Moment of Funny: The "chit" scene in Starclimber.
- Disappeared Dad: Matt's father died in an accident on the Aurora, which is why Matt must work at 15 to support the mothers and sisters.
- The Edwardian Era: Probably, although the exact time is quite vague and undetermined.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Vikram Spirzglas has a young son named Theodore, whom he tells amazing bed time stories.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: Kate's manage to be pretty and good for discovering unknown species in!
- Hot Scientist: Kate de Vries.
- Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Europe is Europa, England is Angleterre, Vancouver is Lionsgate City, the Atlantic and Pacific are the Atlanticus and the Pacificus, and there is a Republic of Colorado. However, most places (Canada, Paris, Victoria, Australia to name the most prominent ones) are kept the same.
- Kick the Dog: Szpirglas kills Mr. Featherstone and Bruce.
- Lady of Adventure: Kate De Vries fits this reasonably well, although she's probably quite a bit younger than most.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Played with; Nadira is revealed to be Vikram Spirzglas' daughter, but she's always known; Matt is the shocked one.
- No Fame, No Wealth, No Service: The restaurant Matt meets Kate at in Skybreaker; he was about to be escorted out until Chef Vlad intervened.
- Opposites Attract: Matt and Kate.
- Recurring Extra: The Lumiere triplets are mentioned in all three books and Matt sees them at a restaurant in Skybreaker.
- Roma: Nadira. In Paris she is quite discriminated against for being a "gypsy".
- Sacrificial Lion: Bruce.
- Shown Their Work: Yes, the gas cells in rigid airships really were made of cow intestine.
- The Sky Is an Ocean: And how. If Matt stopped reminding us every ten seconds how much he loves the air you'd forget they're not on the sea altogether.
- Sky Pirate: Vikram Spirzglas & co., John Rath & co.
- The Space Race: In the Airborn verse, Canada reaches space first. With a space elevator, no less.
- Space Whale: Well, more like Space Whale/Firefly/Shark.
- Spirited Young Lady: Kate. Lampshaded in that after she petitions the Zoological Society to investigate the existence of the creatures her grandfather saw, she's told to return to "young lady's pursuits", much to her disgust.
- Supreme Chef: Chef Vlad.
- Uptown Girl
- Wacky Marriage Proposal
- Wham! Line: "Not birds."
- Why Can't I Hate You?: Non-romantic - Bruce gets a position instead of Matt because of his wealthy father, but proves to be a friendly guy who knows what an awkward situation he's in. Matt finds this is actually more frustrating than if he'd been a spoiled brat.
- You Are Grounded: Kate in chapter 13 of the first book as a result of Miss Simpkins's discovery of the bones. She escapes between the end of that chapter and the start of chapter 14.
- You Killed My Father: Matt killed Nadira's father, Spirzglas, the Big Bad of the previous book. She didn't seem that unhappy or angry about it, though...
- Zeppelins from Another World: The airships.