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Airman by Eoin Colfer
Review by John Berlyne
Puffin Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780141383354
Date: 03 January 2008 List Price £10.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Uncorrected Proof: A new YA book from Eoin Colfer, author of the best-selling (and fantastically enjoyable) Artemis Fowl series, of which two titles, The Arctic Incident and The Opal Deception have been reviewed here previously. Airman, released this month, initially looked to be a stand alone work, but having read it, I see many welcome possibilities for further adventures.

"Conor Broekhart was born to fly. Or more accurately, he was born flying. Little wonder he became what he became. In an age of discovery and invention, many dreamed of flying, but for Conor flight was more than just a dream, it was his destiny. In one dark night on the island of Great Saltee, a cruel and cunning betrayal destroyed his life and stole his future. Now Conor must win the race for flight, to save his family and right a terrible wrong..."

Eoin Colfer, the creator of the hugely successful Artemis Fowl series of Young Adult novels, leaves his fresh-faced anti-hero for a moment and changes writing hats -- actually donning flying helmet and goggles -- to bring us Airman, a tale (we're told on the rear cover of the proof) of "Swashbuckling Adventure, Science Fiction, Betrayal and a Bit of Romance".

Airman is largely set on the Saltee Islands, two isolated landmasses off the coast of County Wexford, Ireland, nowadays visited mainly by bird enthusiasts. In former decades the islands were inhabited and there is even a story involving a self-proclaimed king. Colfer -- captivated as a boy by this romantic location -- revisits the Saltee Islands during the "Pioneer Era" of aviation history and there sets his engaging "Boy's Own" adventure.

Early on we learn of Conor Broekhart's destiny as a flyer. He is born in midair aboard a balloon in a scene high above the rooftops of Paris. Soon after, returned to Great Saltee where his father is Captain of the King's sharpshooters, we follow the years of Conor's childhood as he grows up in the company of the young heir to the throne, Princess Isabella (with whom he inevitably falls in love), her enlightened father, King Nicolas, and his canny, super-enlightened tutor, the French scientist, swordsman and bon vivant, Victor Vigny.

Conor's dreams of flight are shared and encouraged by his tutor -- and together, with the generous support of the King, the two of them begin working on how a manned heavier-than-air vehicle might take to the skies. Just as it seems they might be ready to make a breakthrough, plans are dashed by an act of murder and treachery in which young Conor is implicated. In the blink of an eye, he is whisked away from this privileged childhood to the diamond mines of Little Saltee and believed dead by friends and loved ones. Unjustly imprisoned, and cruelly treated, Conor dreams of escape and of somehow clearing his name. Others spur him toward vengeance, a course which initially young Conor is reluctant to follow, but to which he must inevitably turn.

In essence, Airman is a simple but most effectively plotted piece made up of the classic beginning, middle and end structure. There are no multi-layered sub-plots here, no allegories, no underlying agendas. Instead, Colfer does what he is very, very good at -- he spins an unpretentious yarn, knowing exactly how to engage the reader just enough to make us really care, and providing a rollicking good story along the way. In his depiction of Conor's imprisonment, Colfer owes much to The Count of Monte Cristo and to Stephen King's Andy Dufresne -- the protagonist of "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" -- as Conor's steady, brooding stoicism endures all the cruelty this bitter part of his life throws at him. Knowing how much he longs for the skies, his incarceration in the darkness is chokingly claustrophobic and very well written.

Colfer, whose output has been prolific and consistently impressive since he deservedly hit the big time with Artemis Fowl, makes good on the promise of that rear-cover copy and delivers an engaging, well-told, old-style adventure yarn that once again confirms him as a master teller of tall tales. Airman taps in to every boy's yearning for adventure and excitement, no matter how old he may be.

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