Airman is a cracking good read. It’s a story set in a past that might have happened, when lots of brilliant brains were focused on making flight a reality. Our hero, Conor Broekhart, is born in the sky, in the basket of a crashing hot-air balloon at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair. So begins his fascination with flight. Conor’s remarkable childhood is spent on the Saltee Islands (off the coast of Ireland), where he gets into all kinds of scrapes and adventures with his best friend, Isabella, who just happens to be a princess, daughter to King Nicholas, kind ruler of the Saltees. It’s not long before a tragic turn of events sends this idyllic youth up in smoke, and lands Conor in jail on Little Saltee. It’s one nasty, nasty place, and Conor needs all of his wit and stamina to mastermind his escape, and to rescue his family and Isabella from the oh-so-evil wannabe King: Marshall Bonvilain.
This tale just rips along. There’s hardly a moment to catch your breath as the tension builds from page one. The dark misery of the jail on Little Saltee is most convincing, with enough violence and grit and corruption to draw in resistant readers, especially boys. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are shining-armour worthy. There are several brilliant secondary characters: Conor’s cellmate- a blind composer named Linus Wynter, and Conor’s tutor – the multi-talented Victor Vigny. I wished we’d been able to spend more time with Isabella, since she seems like one cool princess, and she stays very much in the background throughout the story. A minor criticism indeed, given the pleasure the plot and the characters afford as a whole.
Everyone’s been saying that Colfer has shown his best stuff here, and while I’ve only got one Artemis Fowl book under my belt, I think Airman is a tighter story. I don’t imagine that there will be a sequel, which is just right in my opinion. This book is the real deal and it’s hard to imagine that a follow-up could be as strong as the original tale. Kids who like Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn are bound to love Airman, though Colfer’s book may appeal more to children who prefer history to fantasy. Sheer, swashbuckling reading fun.