The Boundless is not just a formulaic chugging snake of metal cars. It’s the 7-mile-long fictional brainchild of factual Victorian-era rail baron Cornelius Van Horne. It’s also the setting for murder, deception, a traveling circus, and one ornery, captive sasquatch in Kenneth Oppel’s The Boundless. The adventure fantasy follows what should be the train’s celebratory maiden voyage across the Canadian Pacific Railroad line until Oppel upends the journey with the story of a disgruntled railway worker out to loot Van Horne’s treasure-laden sarchophagal train car.
“The kind of fantasies that I like to read and write often usually contain one fantastical assumption or object or phenomenon,” says Oppel. “And I like those kinds of books as opposed to a hard-out, sword-and-sorcery fantasy where the world’s simply teeming with magic.”
The 987 cars of the Boundless may not be teeming with magic, but the excitement they contain, inspire and propagate is magical. At the epicenter of the excitement is Will Everett, whose father was once a humble railroad worker and now commandeers Van Horne’s ever-expanding industry. This translates to plush, pleasant surroundings for the Everett family and, inversely, Mr. Everett’s unpleasant intolerance of Will’s art school aspirations. The tension of father’s insistence versus son’s dreams becomes secondary when Will witnesses the aforementioned railway worker murder a guard in order to access Van Horne’s car. To avoid becoming a casualty himself and to warn his father, Will has to travel from the back of the moving train to the front. This ignites an addictive pace that, like the Boundless, moves confidently forward through a world of rustic wonder and industrial fantasy.
Any one of Oppel’s plot points—a tainted maiden voyage, a traveling circus fronted by a mysterious ringleader, a string of sasquatch attacks—could have lived comfortably alone in one volume. Yet in The Boundless, they are all to be devoured in one, hearty steam-powered buffet.
“The way I saw the world, there is magic in it, but it seemed to rise naturally from the world of the late Victorian Age in the Americas, when the continent was opened up by the train,” Oppel says about writing the novel. “It was like unzipping the continent and letting loose all these wonders and marvels and folklore that had been contained in the landscape.”
One of these peculiar wonders is the Muskeg Hag, as delightful as her name sounds. Oppel invented her after researching muskeg, insatiable spans of acidic soil that were known to devour objects as large as a train in the Canadian wild. Will might be evading a murderous thief and his lackeys, but the Hag’s siren song is off-the-charts creepy and sinister, convincing passengers to throw themselves into the muskeg’s maw.
“I just liked the idea of this train- and people-eating landscape,” says Oppel. “And in my imagination, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was actually an entity out there who lured people off of the train and into the bog?’ ”
Like any behemoth offspring of industry and wealth, the Boundless is a marriage of practicality and fantasy. How else could seven horizontal miles of moving metal come to house everything from cargo and passengers to a cinema, greenhouse and swimming pool? It’s a mobile landscape that grants access to peril, glamour and adventure.
“It was like all of these little, narrow connected worlds and zones, and I was just seized by what fun it would be to move through all these zones and who you might encounter,” says Oppel. “So of course there was going to be a circus.” The result is more of a fantastical, rolling theme park than a stodgy, pragmatic locomotive. And as Will’s dayslong trek from caboose to boiler progresses, Oppel ratchets up the richness of Will’s surroundings and the novel’s thrills.
Oppel is a remarkable raconteur. One of the most striking narrative choices in The Boundless is his use of the present tense: “Above his heart’s roar he hears the slow, rhythmic thumping of cars moving along the rails. It’s leaving without him!” The inclusion of details based on historical fact might tempt some to categorize this as historical fiction, a moniker that repels Oppel, since “it sounds like it’s supposed to be good for you, and it sounds like it’s supposed to be something you have inflicted upon you at school.” The present tense works against that temptation.
“When you start writing about something in the present tense, right away you’re just in the skin of the characters, and you’re seeing through their eyes—you feel like it’s happening,” says Oppel. “It’s not in the past; it’s happening now; it’s happening right this second in front of you, and it’s unrolling.”
The sasquatch also keeps The Boundless firmly rooted in fiction. But Oppel’s apelike creature of immense strength, intelligence and ferocity is so convincingly realized, it’s hard to think it doesn’t exist outside of the book.
“You can say sasquatch and people might naturally laugh, but I was at pains in the book to make him legitimately scary, like any other wild animal you encounter, a very intelligent one,” says Oppel. “It wasn’t a spoof; it’s not a pastiche—it was this real thing out there in the woods.”
Though the attempts to evade Bigfoot, hags and murder delay Will’s debate with his father about the future, the argument isn’t forgotten. Will is shy, reserved and a little unsure of himself, but he is adamant about forging a path that is right for him even if it isn’t for his father. “He has this passion, and I think part of his internal journey is realizing that sometimes, it’s worth taking the risk even if you fail,” Oppel says. “Try and write your story as it goes without accepting someone else’s story.”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and is at work on his own teen novel.