Reviewed by Steven Wolk
So, imagine that you are 14 years old and have been unjustly imprisoned. It is the 1890’s and you live on the Saltee Islands off the coast of Ireland. You are in a hellhole of a prison, and the guards are under orders to break you, to make you obedient; so they hire a human grizzly bear by the name of Otto Malarkey. Each day he comes to beat you. Your cellmate gives you one bit of advice: You must kill him. And this cannot wait. Tomorrow, when Otto pays his visit, it must be his last. So, what do you do?
This dreadful quandary befalls Conor Broekhart in Eoin Colfer’s magnificent Airman. Fourteen years old, his heart beating wildly for his lifelong best friend, Princess Isabella, Conor falls victim to the leader of the Saltee military, Marshall Bonvilain, who has been plotting for years to take over the islands. I give Colfer tremendous credit because of all the challenges Conor confronts, including his impending date with Otto, this boy uses his head more than he uses his fists. Don’t get me wrong; Broekhart does not shy away from a fight. But he’s also got a heart and he’s got a brain, and he uses them both.
Conor was born to fly. In fact, he was born in a hot air balloon. As the story begins his scientific brilliance saves the princess and he is rewarded by King Nicholas – a kind and cool king if there ever was one – to have the same private tutor as the princess. After years of education from tai chi to fencing to physics, he is set-up by Bonvilian as a traitor and tossed into the dark and dank diamond mine prison on the Little Saltee Island to slave his life away. Well, needless to say, this boy does not accept his fate. Secretly, he spends his time in prison designing a flying machine – an aeroplane. Can stonewalls imprison a boy who is meant to fly?
I’m a sucker for history, and while Colfer creates an entirely fictional history of a fictional country (the Saltees actually exist, but they’re uninhabited), he peppers it with real history, like the Civil War and real people, like Leonardo da Vinci and Queen Victoria and Darwin, and he makes that place come alive. This book is in the rare genre of historical science fiction. While most of the book reads like adventurous historical fiction, many (but not all) of the flying machines are imaginary. This all makes for a fabulous ride. It is a book that good social studies and science teachers should get excited about and have in their hands on the first day of school. It takes fighting, flying, fencing, and a love for science and wraps it in a story that makes the reader appreciate history. This book – a work of adventure fiction – puts social studies textbooks to shame, because Colfer knows that history really is adventures into the unknown. Just maybe, if I had read this book as a kid I would have had my eyes opened to the thrill of the past and the joy of science and the delight of thinking. And I would have seen that a book could be both exciting and intelligent.
While many books that pass their 400th page could have used an editing trim (The True Meaning of Smekday, hysterical but too long, comes to mind), Airman does not waste a word, and what wonderful words they are. Walk into a bookstore and peruse the kids’ and young adult shelves and you will be practically assaulted by the number of adventure books. And while some of them certainly have plots full of gusto, not many have the words. So I’ll be blunt: Airman is chock-full of gorgeous writing. It flows, man, like a kid with wings, sailing above the clouds. Read it. Devour it. Fly with it. Airman soars.