Book Review: “Airman” by Eoin Colfer

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by Eoin Colfer

Conor Broekhart was born to fly. Literally. Born when the lives of his parents hung in jeopardy as their hydrogen balloon plummeted from the sky, he saves a princess and earns a peerage at the tender age of nine, by improvising a parachute from the flag on a burning rooftop. His tutor is a famous balloonist who emphasizes martial arts and the principles of flight. In the 1890s in which this tale is set, the invention of a workable, fixed-wing, motorized aircraft is still on the horizon. For all anyone knows, Conor Broekhart may be the first to reach that horizon.

In this freestanding novel from the author of the Artemis Fowl series, we discover a tiny island kingdom in the channel between Britain and Ireland. For centuries, the Saltees have flourished under the Trudeau line of kings, and on top of the world’s richest diamond mines. Nevertheless, corruption brews at the highest levels of the nation’s elite guard. The island of Little Saltee has become a hellish prison where inmates slave, and frequently die, in the mines. And now that an American war veteran sits on the throne, a cunning nobleman sees his chance to grab power. All that stands in his way are the king, a French balloonist who manages the king’s spy network, and a clever, spirited, fourteen-year-old boy named Conor Broekhart.

Marshall Hugo Bonvilain has no trouble disposing of the first two, but the boy is trickier. Deciding to use Conor as leverage to obtain the loyalty of his military father, Bonvilain secretes the boy away in the bowels of Little Saltee. There, under the new identity of Conor Finn, the boy survives three years of hell – and more than survives. He grows into a strong and formidable fighter. He gains control of a vicious gang. He scratches designs for flying machines into the walls of his cell. And he plans his escape. Escape and revenge.

Or maybe just escape. Conor isn’t sure about the revenge bit. Maybe it isn’t worth it. As far as he knows, his parents and his beloved princess think he killed the king. As far as they know, he died a hero. The potential for great tragedy lies in this misunderstanding – exactly as Marshall Bonvilain has planned. But he little knows what he has unleashed on himself until Conor makes good his daring escape from Little Saltee. Then, between sorties of a menacing, flying man, Bonvilain begins to wonder whether he shouldn’t have killed the boy in the first place. And Conor, now a young man, begins to wonder whether he should run away and start a new life… or go home and set everything right.

This is the story of all that leads to his decision, and what immediately comes of it. It’s a thrilling one, too. It is filled with the agony of unjust and cruel punishment, the suspense of seeing a beautiful soul pressured to turn ugly, the perils of early flight, and the exquisite dilemmas of friendship, family, romantic love, and service to one’s country – particularly when the same sword hangs over them all. It comes to a gripping climax in which guns, swords, poison, treachery, and aeronautics share equally. It’s like The Count of Monte Cristo with wings. If you don’t love it, seek help.