When history takes an unfamiliar route after Samuel Dakota finds a biochemical secret of flight during the Civil War, his teenaged grandson Hollis Dakota finds himself up almost alone against a hijaker of his dead father's greatest work – an “uncrashable” airship appropriately named the Wendell Dakota. That hijaker also happens to be his stepfather, Jefferson Castor.
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What Hollis and his stepbrother (and friend) Rob don't know is that Jefferson has always had his eyes set on revenge. Samuel Dakota's discoveries used moonshine stolen from Jefferson's father Hezekiah, a southerner whose property was raided and damaged by Samuel and his (northern) comrades. When Hezekiah demands that Samuel pay for repairs on his property after Samuel becomes rich, Samuel fears blackmail or a trap of some sort, and accidentally shoots him when startled by Jefferson's entry. Jefferson therefore sets the stakes higher: He wants reparations for his father's death in the form of control of Dakota Aeronautics.
Jefferson has a crew of unusual and suspicious-looking men to help him, including members of several beetle cults (apparently inspired by the poor beetles that are instrumental in lifting the airships of the ground) and confederate southerners eager to reverse the outcome of the civil war. He also takes his own wife (Hollis' mother Lucy Dakota) hostage, and is counting on ransoms on rich passengers to pay his minions.
Hollis's allies include his stepbrother Rob, tech-saavy beetle-keeper Delia (who is not a cult member, thank you very much, but is the inventor of a wireless telegraph that keeps the three of them in communication), and several young 3rd-class recruits who ally thanks to Delia's persuasion and a temporary overlap in interests. Among the five of them, they manage to stay mostly out of the way of the seeking eyes of Jefferson's men. The biggest exception to this rule is Rob, who cannot believe it when Hollis tells him it's his own father who's taken over the ship, and who also (by the way) hired a hit man to kill Hollis' father. Meanwhile, however, Delia and Hollis cut all ship communication except their own wireless telegraphs, and Delia's friends help them return to the bridge when Rob signals them that his father is holding Lucy Dakota hostage there.
In reality, however, the cut communication lines coupled with Jefferson's inexperienced crew and wild plans do the work for them. Thirteen years before, Samuel Dakota had set himself adrift into the skies in a glass ship as penance for Hezekiah's death, which had always weighed on his mind. The beetle cultists manage to drive the ship right to this ship's location and crash into it, destroying the ship. Chaos breaks loose on the ship. Lucy, Hollis, Rob, Delia, and her two friends begin herding passengers to the escape air canoes. When Hollis and Rob discover Samuel's glass ship (and tomb), Hollis realizes they can also use it to get those they care about to safety.
Once safely on the ground, Lucy Dakota takes back control of the company. Hollis sets his mind to making a ship with fewer class distinctions in accommodations and some technological advancements created by Delia. During its inauguration, he appropriately remembers those who perished on the Wendell Dakota. It is implied that Rob and his father never left Samuel's glass tomb ship. Rob, who is in some ways caught in the middle of the situation, has stayed by his father's side to try to bring him back to sanity, and Jefferson is still held in the grip of past wrongs on both sides.
Best part of story, including ending:
I would have liked an afterward with more discussion of the author's inspiration from the Titanic. I also had mixed thoughts about Marino's invented alternate history; it was amusing in some respects, but in others, was somewhat less exciting than what I would have hoped.
Best scene in story:
When passengers must leave the ship, Hollis is completely focused on helping them is spite of being not quite ok from the crash. So is his mother and several of his friends. I like that they are strong and focused on others in this respect; they have a sense of responsibility towards their ship and towards the people they have taken aboard.
Opinion about the main character:
Hollis allows himself to be influenced too much by some of Rob's negative tendencies. Rob has a reputation for getting them into trouble, going where he's not supposed to go, and skipping class. Underneath, however, both also have positive qualities, and Rob's tendency to take risks serves them in good stead during the time of emergency (ie, the hijacking).