Book Review: “Airman” by Eoin Colfer


Title: Airman
Author: Eoin “It’s Pronounced Owen!” Colfer
Format: Novel
Pages: 412
Published: 2009
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “In an 1890s where the small Saltee Islands are a sovereign nation off the Irish coast, young Conor Broekhart spends his days studying flight and fencing with his tutor and exploring the castle with the king’s daughter, Princess Isabella. But his idyllic life changes forever the day he discovers a deadly conspiracy against the king. When Conor tries to intervene, he is framed as a traitor and thrown into jail on the prison island of Little Saltee. He passes the desperate, solitary months by scratching drawings of flying machines on the prison walls, until the day comes when he must find the courage to trust his revolutionary designs and take to the skies.” (paraphrased by me from the blurb on the back cover)
Reason for Beginning: Recommended by a trusted friend, and the alternate history + flying machines sounded really cool. Hoped it would be steampunk, but it isn’t.
Reason for Finishing: Fun! Delirious fast-paced high-adventure! Kings! Princesses! Castles! Betrayals! Prisons! Science! Sword-fights! Flying Machines! Escapes! Sharpshooters! Secret towers! Secret codes! Blind violinist-spies! True love! Beef Stew! (uh, err, okay, so that last one’s not really important. But it is there!)
Story Re-readability: Hm, I’d say strong. It’s not calling out to me and demanding a reread anytime soon, but it’s light and exceedingly fun reading, and I probably will return to it sometime in the future when I just need a really good, no-holds-barred adventure.
Author Re-readability: If this is representative of Colfer’s style, then yes, I’d gladly pick up another book of his. This is a Young Adult book, and he writes to that level well. His style is quick, sharp, and straight to the point. He says exactly what he means, so there’s not a lot of subtlety, but he says it all well, and with some personality. His pacing occasionally stumbles a little bit when he tries scene changes that jump too far ahead in time, leaving the reader frustrated and in-the-dark about what’s really going on until he pauses to fill in the details. But overall the plot was managed well, and built to a very satisfying conclusion.
Recommendation: Yes. The descriptions above should be enough for you to decide whether or not it interests you.

Key Thoughts

Amazing fan art by Leighton Johns

You know, it just occurred to me today, as I reread a random chapter of Airman in preparation for this review, how similar this story is to The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. You have the innocent, noble hero in his idyllic life at the start. He is talented, stylish, well-liked, ambitious, and has a beautiful girl in love with him. Then he is betrayed, framed as a criminal in the eyes of those he loves, and cast violently into a terrible prison, where he spends some years. In prison he learns to survive, and meets a friendly older mentor who teaches him more skills and knowledge that prove vital. He devises a cunning escape plan, finds some hidden treasure, and then with the aid of a loyal friend plans revenge on those who destroyed his life, only to have said friend constantly council him towards doing good instead of violence. Fortunately, Conor Broekhart finds a much happier ending than Edmond Dantes.

From a graphic novel of "Airman" which is supposedly in the works.

I found all the characters quite likable and well-placed in the story. Colfer manages to squeeze a respectable amount of character development from them, despite his quick pace and need to impart a lot of plot in the least confusing way possible. Conor, while definitely in the swashbuckling tradition, is also a bit of a scientist in the Jules-Verne tradition, and is genuinely thoughtful and perceptive. Sometimes his moods seem to follow the dictates of the plot a little too closely, but it all is reasonable enough. His mentor Victor Vigny is a swashbuckling French rogue, but has a great deal of warmth and sincerity to him that makes him quite endearing as well as fun to read. The least developed character is the antagonist, Marshall Bonvilain, whose name, no doubt, is meant to sound like “good villain,” and that he certainly is. I say he is one-dimensional, but it is a singularly entertaining and charismatic dimension, if you’ll pardon the pun. While he makes a few of the classic mistakes every swashbuckling villain seems to, in general he seems more cunning, less likely to underestimate his enemies. A formidable fellow. The final chapters about his downfall and Conor’s victory is satisfying, and had me grinning ear to ear.

Another reviewer (eh…can’t find the link) briefly compared it to The Princess Bride book, and I can see why. They both have high adventure in the best classic tradition and a fair bit of witty humor, but Airman takes itself more seriously and doesn’t have the air of sly parody that The Princess Bride does. Still, it’s commendable how Colfer is able to keep such a dramatic story from being melodramatic. He deals with his characters’ issues frankly and honestly. You think he’s overlooked something, that you’ve finally found a plot hole, only to have him address it a few chapters later. As authors go, he seems to be pretty aware of what his readers are thinking at a given point in the story.

The cover on my copy.

You know, I think this book would make a fine adventure movie. Live action or traditional animation, I’d think. The visual, action-oriented style often suggests a film camera, and most scenes are full of dramatic dialogue and flourishes. I’ve heard that a motion-capture version is in the works, which sounds like a terrible idea to me (I’m not a fan of 100% mo-cap movies like Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol). Anyway, I hope the filmmakers do justice to the intelligence and sharpness of the writing. There’s plenty of action and excitement here already, without the need for flashy new special-effects sequences that go on and on, and overload the viewer to the degradation of the story.

As familiar as the basic story may be, the book doesn’t actually feel old or hackneyed. It’s fresh, energetic, and full of joie de vivre, as Victor Vigny would no doubt say. The best thing I can say about Eoin Colfer’s Airman is that it drew out both my laughter and my imagination in generous portions.

Airman, by Eoin Colfer” by Agignac at The Zen Leaf
Fan Cover by Leighton Johns
Eoin Colfer’s Official Webste

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