Airman by Eoin Colfer
Puffin, Penguin Group, 2008.
Recommended. Short-listed for the Carnegie Medal in 2009, Airman was also on the New York Times best seller list. It is sure to be a hit with boys from 10 up; adults would enjoy it too. It is an old-fashioned 'Boy's Own Adventure' story where Jules Verne meets The Count of Monte Cristo meets H.G. Wells.
The setting is the uninhabited Saltee islands (which really do exist off the coast of Ireland) where our intrepid boy hero Conor Broekhart is sent to mine diamonds in appalling conditions near the end of the 19th century. His crime is to have witnessed the head of the island's guards, the dastardly Marshall Bonvilain, killing both King Nicholas Trudeau and Conor's tutor, Victor Vigny. Marshall Bonvilain then takes control of the islands in order to turn them into a diamond market and the progressive kingdom of the Trudeaus then decays.
Conor is no ordinary 14 year old boy. Born in a hot air balloon, he is fascinated with flying and has been tutored in fencing, pugilism, weaponry, and the martial arts. With his tutor he had been experimenting with flying machines. Intelligent, strong, resourceful and of scientific mind, his early years as a beloved son and the childhood companion to the Princess Isabella stand him in good stead throughout three years of inhumane prison life with its evil guards and 'Battering Ram' gangsters. To add to his predicament, he believes his family have swallowed Bonvilain's lies about Conor betraying them.
The odds seemed stacked against Conor at every turn, providing the ingredients for a swashbuckling action packed yarn. Although violence is portrayed, Conor refuses to betray his principles and will not kill. He is mentored by the wise Linus Wynter, a blind American musician. The themes of loyalty, ethics, courage and friendship are explored. Although factual mechanical explanations of early flying machines are provided, the reader will readily suspend disbelief as he is caught up in Conor's adventures.
This page turner would make a good read aloud, especially for reluctant readers. This would also help younger readers who may need help to understand shifts in viewpoints and time jumps. A must have for all school libraries.