Dusk by Kenneth Oppel

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Dusk by Kenneth Oppel

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A fascinating and speculative story set 65 million years ago and telling the stories of the first bat and the first carnivorous feline. It's tremendously interesting and maintains great tension, although sometimes the anthropomorphism gets a little intrusive.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Faber Children's Books
ISBN: 0571238327

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It's the Palaeocene - 65 million years ago and the dinosaurs are dying out. Mammals are finding life an awful lot easier, with this most fearsome of predators on the wane.

Dusk is a "chiropter" - a kind of shrew with "sails" adapted for gliding. His colony migrated to an island some years before. Dusk is different to the other chiropters though. His sails are furless. He lacks some of his claws. His back legs are weaker than those of his fellows, but his chest and arms are stronger. And Dusk can "see" in the dark. Dusk is a proto-bat. Carnassial is a small felid, about the size of a weasel, and one day his descendants will become the first felines. Carnassial, too, differs from his peers. He has a hunger for meat, and his teeth have adapted to make it easier for him to shear meat from carcasses.

Things aren't easy for the two misfits. The other chiropters dislike and distrust Dusk's adaptations. And when he begins to fly, things go from bad to worse. Dusk threatens their hard-won security in competing with birds for air space, and the rest of the colony see him as an aberration. He lives under constant threat of expulsion. All that stands between Dusk and a life in exile is his father, the colony's leader. Carnassial is expelled from his prowl. By hunting and eating other mammals, he has broken the ancient pact between all beasts against the dinosaurs. He, and the other felids like him, are forced to leave the group and find a new place in which to live.

Oh, I rather liked this premise. Dusk speculates what it was like at this critical moment in Earth's history; after the dinosaurs died and when mammals began to shine. It's fascinating stuff and Oppel paints a vivid picture of prehistory long before man arrived and trampled over every resource the Earth had to offer. But of course, there are some significant parallels to our world today. After the dinosaurs, Earth lacked major predators and over population was a distinct possibilty. What would all the successful mammals eat was as important a question then as it is now, with the planet hosting more than six billion human beings. Carnassial, of course, has the Palaeocene answer. And bats too - fascinating creatures, aren't they? In Oppel's descriptions of Dusk I really did come to fully understand the wonders of echolocation.

The narrative itself is quite tense and exciting. The chiropters come under threat from Carnassial and his new prowl of carnivores and they are forced to embark on a perilous journey in search of a new and safer home. Dusk's adaptations prove indispensible, and thusly the importance of natural selection comes strongly to the fore.

It is a story though, and while the history and science basics are right, readers aren't intended to take the details as gospel. Chiropters are a fictional species, for example, and bats probably developed echolocation long before they learned to fly. Carnassial's prowl is similarly speculative. This is an imagining of how it could have been and by and large it's a rather spiffing one. Occasionally the extent of the anthropomorphism grated - I am not sure that proto-bats favoured one child over another or had notions of honour and loyalty. I doubt felids fell in love. And I wasn't at all sure about the alliance of beasts against dinosaurs. While it's nice to imagine conscious cooperation between species, I think sometimes these human sensibilities actually took away from the sense of being immersed in a very different past.

Anthropomorphism aside, Dusk is a fascinating book and there's little like it on the bookshop shelves. Children across the world are fascinated by dinosaurs and prehistory, and any one of them would, I am sure, absolutely love reading it.

My thanks to the good people at Faber for sending the book.

The ultimate in animal stories is, of course, Call of the Wild by Jack London. If they want some factual information about the science of dinosaurs, they could look at If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today by Dougal Dixon.

Buy Dusk by Kenneth Oppel at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dusk by Kenneth Oppel at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Dusk by Kenneth Oppel at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dusk by Kenneth Oppel at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

I don't think I could cope with all this anthropomorphism. "An ancient pact between all beasts against the dinosaurs"???? Phew.

In a way, I think it would more acceptable in a book for adults than a book for children who are prone to magical thinking and anthropomorphisation anyway.

But maybe I am just, uhmmmmm, a specist? Probably.