by Eoin Colfer
Published by Hyperion
416 pages, 2008
Touched by Verne
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Eoin Colfer is best known for the Artemis Fowl series, those novels centered around a young Irish genius who burst on the scene by kidnapping a fairy for ransom and who has had several adventures since then.
In Airman, he ventures into Jules Verne territory, with some touches of The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a breathless, non-stop adventure.
Conor Broekhart was born in a balloon as it was shot down at the Paris World Fair in 1878. This is only the start of his love for flying. He lives with his parents in the miniature kingdom of the Saltee Islands, somewhere between Britain, Ireland and France. The Islands were given to an ambitious knight, Raymond Trudeau, by British King Henry II, to keep his mind off his own kingdom. The place had no natural resources, until diamonds were discovered on the smaller island of the Saltees. The mines have kept the place going for centuries and provided a place to send convicts.
The current king of the Saltees, Nicholas I, is the last Trudeau heir, an American who had been a balloonist during the American Civil War. Nicholas is enthusiastic about science and has been working on modernizing his kingdom, so Conor, who lives at the palace and plays with Princess Isabella, studies a modern curriculum and has the opportunity to work on his passion for flying.
But someone else has a passion for power -- a passion that the finding of the last Trudeau ruined. The commander of the Saltee army, with the interesting name of Sir Hugo Bonvilain, had hoped to become Prime Minister, not to mention having control over the diamond mines. When Bonvilain (don’t you love that name?) arranges for the king’s murder and Conor is arrested for the crime, he finds out that, actually, Sir Hugo was already running the mines his way. It’s not much fun working there.
However, Conor is smart and has a modern education and he has made friends. Watch him secretly build a spectacular way of escape during the young Queen’s coronation! Watch him hide some bags of diamonds to help him start a new life after his escape! See how he works out that Hugo has found a way to keep the truth both from his parents and himself.
And what happens when Hugo plots to poison both Isabella -- the girl he loves -- and his parents? Well, this book is called Airman. Needless to say, there is a spectacular entrance just in time.
This is, in many ways, an old-fashioned adventure story with science fictional elements of the kind seen in the novels of Jules Verne, with the difference that the author of this book has the advantage of modern scientific knowledge. There aren’t too many female characters -- really, just Isabella and Conor’s mother, Catherine -- but both of them are strong and intelligent. Conor was born in the balloon in the first place because Catherine wanted to try it out, eight months into her pregnancy, and felt no fear. Isabella might have lost her father, but she has her own mind about the running of her kingdom once she comes of age. Conor is not just the good guy of the book; he learns to survive in a prison with some tough characters, and to persuade the nasty jailer to do things his way. Several times he is tempted to kill someone, but never does. Yet he is also tempted to take his secret stash off to America and start again, and has to decide between that and fighting the villain for his homeland.
Airman is entertaining and exciting, with never a boring moment. It will keep your teenager amused for hours, after which, perhaps, you might like to offer them 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. | April 2008
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.