Review of the Day: Airman
By Eoin Colfer
On shelves now
How Not to Review a Book: Do not begin your review by jumping off into some big old rant about how you never liked anything the author wrote before, particularly if you are about to praise their newest novel. Do not use phrases like “how did this happen?” and “why now?”. You may discuss how impressed you were with the author’s speaking engagements, mentioning in passing their brilliant encapsulation of, oh say, The Legend of Spud Murphy. Do not then bring up how disappointed you were in the book itself and how you always wished the author’s stories would live up to that brilliant potential palpable in person. Don’t do any of that. It’ll just get your review off to a bad start and put all those Artemis Fowl fans on the defensive (for example). If you’re going to write a review of a book that you loved, adored, swallowed whole and digested with relish, DO begin your review that way. Catharsis has not place in professional book review circles. Not the nice ones, anyway.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that roundabout little introduction is just my way of saying how much I loved Airman. It was one of those books I saw sitting on my boss’s bookshelf that made me think, “Maybe I should read that.” It wasn’t until multiple people told me in person and repeatedly how good it was that I caved. And it really is good, gentle reader. It puts the buckle in swashbuckling. The play in swordplay. The terror in terrific. It’s a good old-fashioned tale of thwarted romance, betrayal, great heroism, murder, diamonds, villains, kings, Americans, thugs, and a boy with the unusual inclination to fly.
The thing to know about Conor Broekhart, before all the nastiness occurred, was that he was born in the sky. A hot air balloon, if you wanted me to be more precise. A falling, soon-to-be-crushed, death trap of a balloon, to be even closer to the mark. Of course Conor didn’t die, and as a result his family returned to their home on the Saltee Islands (just off the coast of Ireland) with a new baby to introduce to the King. Conor’s father was the king’s right hand man, and because they were so close the boy grew up running around the castle with his best friend, the princess. But that was before the king was murdered. Before Conor was thrown into jail on the Little Saltee island (think Alcatraz, but with less charm). Before the boy discovered how to survive in his new, harsh, surroundings and find a way out of his predicament. And now the princess and his family are in mortal peril, unless Conor can truly crack the riddle of how to construct a machine that will fly.
Is it fantasy? No more than any historical novel where the hero indulges in science. Is it science fiction? Only if you consider the notion of one man discovering the use of propellers on his own fantastical. Is it steampunk? No. Stop being silly. No this is, odd as it may sound, fiction with spice. That’s not really a category, so I don’t know if you can call it anything but original. Frances Hardinge’s Fly by Night suffered similar categorical problems. Her book seemed like a fantasy, but like this book it was merely an alternate history. Still, if lumping this puppy in with 500+ page fantasy tomes is the only way to get kids to read it, so be it. I’ve no objections on my end.
For all its 416 pages, the book feels very tight. Colfer keeps a firm hand on the reins of his plot, never indulging too far in one direction or another. The result is a story that flies by with hardly a gasp for breath. This isn’t to say that the author doesn’t indulge in a small aside once in a while. He does, but they’re always very quick and funny. For example, when the castle tower is on fire and King Nicholas must escape from his royal bathroom the text reads, "There was a window, of course. Nicholas was a great believer in the benefits of good ventilation. He was a devotee of meditation, too; but this was hardly the time for it."
There are also copious details that give the book just enough heft to keep it from feeling too frivolous. They tend to be little things. The scrape of the bolt on prison doors is described as "Top C", with the side note, "Social diarists record that survivors of Little Saltee often suffered from insomnia unless their bedchamber doors were fitted with rusted bolts." There are references to Napoleon’s stay at Little Saltee (apparently he fared poorly). I liked the little mites that eat away the disease and filth from new prisoners. And Conor’s method of writing down his schematics is probably the closest this book comes to science fiction, without ever really treading fully down that path.
Kids looking for excitement will find it from page one onward. And yet, for all its death-defying escapades, Colfer is very careful to cover his bases. He doesn’t get sloppy on the details. By the end of the book the reasons why Conor wasn’t killed at the same time as Nicholas and why the princess is left living are explained perfectly without so much as a glint of a gap in sight. Kids will enjoy the book because the characters are great and the story is fun. Adults will enjoy it because it won’t require extraordinary suspensions of disbelief. Plus the fact that this is a stand-alone novel that does not lend itself naturally to sequels or a series is like a palate cleanser in this sequel-addled age with live in.
Colfer shows himself to be a skillful writer by his interesting choices. Under normal circumstances, when the hero in a story has a plan and doesn’t let the reader in on it, usually that plan goes off without a hitch. It doesn’t look as if Colfer understood that concept, though, and the book is stronger for it. He also must have never heard the rule that the more often the hero is knocked unconscious, the worse the book is. Conor gets his own fair share of blows to the head, but the author always plays fair and never uses that as an excuse to fudge details or bridge insurmountable distances. Well played.
I also had great respect for Colfer when he saw to it that his hero never became a murderer. Our heroes in movies and books like killing henchmen. The idea that an action packed storyline requires that your protagonist have blood on his hands is a complex issue, too easily skirted around. Colfer isn’t afraid to face the problem head-on, though, making it perfectly clear that the "kill or be killed" mode of thought only means that under the right circumstances it is the people without the proper intelligence or imagination who are the ones who descend into becoming killers.
And on a personal note, I was happy to see that the Yanks in this book come off looking pretty good. Good King Nicholas, the forward thinking monarch on the Saltee throne, is an American. Linus Wynter, the kind blind prisoner who helps Conor survive prison, is also an American. We haven’t looked this good on paper since Lee Scoresby first showed his face in The Golden Compass.
Some people say the book is The Count of Monte Cristo. Others argue that it feels more like The Man in the Iron Mask. With such esteemed comparisons, it shouldn’t hurt matters any to also note that it also happens to be consistently interesting, smart, exciting, and fun. The finest book Eoin Colfer has ever written, and hopefully the start of more stories like this to come. Everyone should read it.
On shelves now.
First Line: “Conor Broekhart was born to fly; or, more accurately, he was born flying.”
Notes on the Cover: Whom do I kiss for this? Who? Come on, Hyperion, don’t be shy. Is it Steve Stone? He was the cover artist after all. Should I kiss him? Or howzabout Ellice M. Lee, the cover designer? Seriously, somebody is deserving of smooches because this is one of the best covers I’ve had the privilege to gaze upon in a very long time. I daresay it get the very tone of the book right, which is more than rare. The green is smart and brings to mind the color of Conor’s prison sketches. His outfit is perfect and while the actual glider may have a couple more gears and wheels than your average design, I still think it fits the description in the book. So pucker up, Hyperion, because if ever a cover deserved kisses this one did.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this other one:
Check out the Kids Q&A with Mr. Colfer on the Powell’s Blog.
And here’s the book trailer for the book.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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