Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale

Authored by Hannah Durkan
Published by Hachette

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Zeina Starborn and the Sky Whale is a fantasy story full of adventure, suspense and wonder.

The world Hannah Durkan has created splits society in two: the Aboves and Belows. Each live either above or below the smog line: the Belows wallow in pollution and filth, while the Aboves are rich, and geographically removed from the environmental mess they are largely responsible for.

Zeina is a Below, but dreams of being able to explore the continents like the Aboves on their airships, and specifically to follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Vivianne Steele. The chances of her ever being able to do so are thin, until her father presents her with a ticket to the birthday of Jackson Willoughby, heir to the Willoughby fortune, and most definitely an Above. Think of the Willoughbys as something akin to the Trumps – unfathomably rich, and not afraid to let everyone know.

At this party, Jackson and Zeina are flung together for an adventure across the sky, on the hunt for a sky whale – literally a whale that lives in the sky. These have historically been entrapped by the Willoughby family, who have used a powerful technology to control the whales, thus creating sky whale hotels, the key to their wealth.

Jackson is a Willoughby by name, but not by nature. Not for him are the parties, opulence and adventure – he’d rather be practising his velocycling and have his feet firmly on the ground. Zeina is the ying to his yang, all boisterous, direct and can-do. They make for an interesting partnership.

As the two travel together, they learn about each other, about themselves, and also about the murky underworld of the rich and powerful. Absolute power corrupts, and the Willoughby family’s greed unsettles both Zeina and Jackson. From here, issues around class and wealth could be discussed, and, although this is a story set in a fantastical world, environmental issues such as pollution and animal welfare come to the fore in a very real and thought-provoking way. The dropped-in newspaper reports might also offer a way in to looking at bias in the media.

For me, the book was of two halves – a nice, patient build up as we learn about Zeina and Jackson, and then full throttle action for the second half. There are twists and turns aplenty!

Definitely one for year 4 and above, this book would comfortably sit alongside fantasy adventures such as Mortal Engines, The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, and Brightstorm, as well as having a touch of the steampunk energy about it. I raced through it and would certainly read anything that follows in the world of Zeina and Jackson.

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