Airman: In Which Eoin Colfer Proves Alternate History Fantasy Does Not Need to be Complex

Eoin Colfer’s been a young adult author I’ve always had something of a soft spot for, even though I have not yet read a book of his that can’t be finished in an afternoon or so if you focus on it. His writing is apparently not the New York Times Bestseller-crack Rick Riordan has managed to tap into, but I don’t think I’ve disliked a book he’s written yet, and Airman, a story of a young man’s adventures in aviation with a sprinkling of crushed pages from The Count Of Monte Cristo, is no exception.

Airman is an alternate history fantasy, but it does not appear to be the kind that is self-congratulatory about their alternative take on historical events, nor does it feel the need to exposit at length about how similar and different the world is from our own; the primary alternative element driving Colfer’s fantasy is that the Saltee Islands off the coast of Ireland are inhabited by a small but thriving nation. The protagonist of the novel, Conor Broekhart, is the son of the captain of the guard and best friend of the king’s daughter, Isabella. As a young man, Conor’s life is idyllic; loved by his parents, liked by the king and his daughter, and taught by Victor Vigny, a french aeronaut that teaches him both academics and the martial arts. Conor’s great ambition in life is to become an aeronaut himself and invent a method for manned flight that surpasses hot air balloons, but his life takes an unexpected turn when the treacherous Prime Minister Hugo Bonvilain (the king apparently was not well-versed in spotting obvious villain names) assassinates the king and Victor and secretly has Conor, the only witness, declared dead and thrown into the prison/diamond mine of Little Saltee. The rest of the book revolves around Conor adapting to life in prison thanks to Victor’s lessons and slowly plotting a method to perfect manned flight to escape from prison and get his revenge.

Airman is not a complicated book; the morality is very black-and-white, with all of the villains being card-carrying members of the Evil Club and people throughout the book remarking at length what a dastardly bastard that Bonvilian guy is. Conor does avoid being a boring whitebread hero in that he does need to confront that his motivations as a man are hardly as noble as his boyhood dreams and struggle with the choice between what’s right and what’s easy, but he’s still a very clear-cut hero throughout. However, Colfer is able to make do without much complexity; as simple as the story and characters are, he is able to make them compelling enough to keep the reader interested. As such, the book feels a little lightweight but nicely balanced, avoiding both the tendency of alternate history books to be too hung up on their changed history to actually tell the story and the tendency of more “simple” young adult books to be insultingly unchallenging. All in all, I would give the book an 8/10.

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