By Kenneth Oppel
Simon & Schuster, 2014
The Boundless is a children's/young adult novel set in an alternate past, during approximately the same time period as the building of the transcontinental railway. While the 1870s depicted are mostly the same as ours, fictional beasts such as Sasquatches and evil hags roam the American wild-lands. Even so, it is not so much a fantasy novel as a tale of epic adventure.
The story starts with young William Everett, a frontier brat, who serendipitously runs into (literally) Cornelius Van Horne, the head of the railway. Van Horne is an unusually kind mogul, and Will tells him that he is waiting for news of his father, who is working on the last stretch of the railway. Van Horne is heading in that direction himself, and he decides to take Will to meet his father and take part in the ceremony of driving the ceremonial last spike, completing the transcontinental railway. This is a wonderful adventure... until the shouts and gunshots of the celebration set off an avalanche, nearly killing Will, Van Horne, and Will's father.
Will and his father save Van Horne, and by the time the story really starts, Will's father has moved up significantly in the company... in fact, now that Van Horne has died (of natural causes), he is next in line to be general manager. Will and his father are escorting Van Horne's corpse on its final voyage, and overseeing the maiden voyage of Van Horne's final project: the Boundless is the largest steam engine ever constructed, and in addition to pulling the funeral coach it has over four miles of cars. Will and his father are staying in first class, opulent carriages that have specialized cars containing everything from a theater to bar to a swimming pool.
This changes suddenly when during their first stop Will witnesses a murder -- and then is discovered by the murderer. He manages to escape, but barely manages to get back on the train. He finds himself miles away from first class, hunted by a gang of murderers, and with no one to help him. That is, until he falls into one of the circus carriages, and finds that he has unexpected friends there.
The majority of the story is an exciting and often dangerous exploration of the train, which is as large and as diverse as a city. There's a fair amount of historical detail and Americana both real and fantastical, from Sasquatch to gentlemen shooting bison (and sometimes Native Americans) from the train for sport. This is further spiced up by the circus, whose members help Will escape, for purposes both noble and devious. Oh, and it's also a heist story. It really is an epic adventure.
This is an exciting story, appropriate for children and young adults. My library has it in the children's section, which I think is appropriate, but it is a coming of age story and has hints of romance and a strong themes of self-determination and Will standing up to his father. It is perhaps targeted at children 10-15, although it is certainly enjoyable for older readers.
Accelerated Reader Level: 6.3