I never thought Eoin Colfer would be able to match the greatness of the Artemis Fowl series. I’d read one or two of his simpler books before Artemis and didn’t think they were that special, to be honest. But I just finished listening to Airman as an audiobook and y’all… it may be even better.
In the 1890s Conor and his family live on the sovereign Saltee Islands, off the Irish coast. Conor spends his days studying the science of flight with his tutor and exploring the castle with the king’s daughter, Princess Isabella. But the boy’s idyllic life changes forever the day he discovers a deadly conspiracy against the king. When Conor tries to intervene, he is branded a traitor and thrown into jail on the prison island of Little Saltee. There, he has to fight for his life, as he and the other prisoners are forced to mine for diamonds in inhumane conditions. There is only one way to escape Little Saltee, and that is to fly…
It’s not exactly steampunk, but a kind of steampunk-friendly adventure novel; a middle-grade standalone published in between some of the Artemis Fowl books. That’s pretty impressive, because this is such a long, intense, and atmospheric piece. Not too explicit or grisly for middle grade, but very serious, and often very dark. Conor is absolutely amazing, a swashbuckling fighter and young aeronautic genius, but he also deals with the trauma of being sent to a prison colony at 14 and facing an enemy who’s been developing his stranglehold for generations. One of the best parts of the book is that sometimes Conor just can’t handle it on his own. Sometimes he’s not brave or resolved and doesn’t have himself together, but he has equally amazing allies pushing him and themselves to do what needs to be done.
The supporting characters are fabulous. By the end, I felt like I knew them all and they’d been my mentors too, or well-known people from the island kingdom where I grew up with Conor. The whole book has a splendid 1890s scienceyness about it, a hope for a future built on innovation, a sense of striving for excellence in all areas of life. Conor has about four mentors, including military, scientific, and musical men, and they show how valor isn’t limited to any one pursuit. It helps to know some swordplay, but these men also fight with their minds and try to avoid harming others. There are only a few women — probably warranted given how much happens in a men’s prison etc. — but I also loved the relationship between Isabella and Conor’s mother as it developed. The one exception to the “characters are all real to me now” rule is the villain… The whole thing works and holds together, and Bonvilain is legit scary, but Colfer tends to fall back on “slightly unhinged” for his villains’ motivations and it makes them a little less compelling.
Airman is just absolutely excellent writing all the way through. If you liked Artemis Fowl, you’ll probably like this, but they’re really not very similar. With Airman, expect an immersive experience all its own. (And if you like audiobooks, this is a great one performed by Irish actor John Keating!)