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Literature / Airman

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Airman is an Alternate History adventure novel by Eoin Colfer.

Conor Broekhart lives with his family on the Saltee Islands off the coast of Ireland, the time period being the late 19th century. The islands are independent, ruled over by the benevolent King Nicholas, an old friend of Conor's parents. Conor's childhood is spent both playing around the island with the princess, Isabella, and studying with the Frenchman Victor Vigny, from whom he learns all about flight, swordplay, and other fun things.

Everything changes the day he discovers a plot to overthrow the king. This leads to him getting framed as a traitor by the would-be usurper and thrown into the prison mines of Little Saltee, where the only way off the island is by flight. Conor, only fourteen years old at the time, must call upon all of his training and wits to somehow escape, all the while trying to survive prison.


A trilogy taking place in the same universe and involving Time Travel, called WARP, was written by Colfer five years later.

Contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The Ace: Victor is a Badass Bookworm, expert in tai chi, fencing, escapology, aeronautics, engineering, shooting, and being a Deadpan Snarker.
  • Affably Evil: Otto Malarkey, the thug-for-hire who will chat you up pleasantly before he beats you half to death.
  • The Alcatraz: Little Saltee is a prison island that is nigh impossible to escape.
  • Alternate History: Rewrites some history to insert the fictional protagonist Conor Broekhart into the race for flight, as well as the cast of characters and the setting (the Saltee Islands, which have been virtually unoccupied since the dawn of 20th century).
  • Arc Words: "We are visionaries." First spoken by Victor, and later quoted by Linus.
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  • Authority Equals Asskicking: King Nicholas of the Saltee Islands. He was a skirmisher and balloonist during the American Civil War, and he's said to sleep on the window seat in his chambers because the bed is too soft. Subverted, however, in that his martial feats have nothing to do with his royalty.
  • Badass Bookworm:
    • Conor. Aeronautics are his real passion, but his mentor, Victor Vigny, trained him well in a variety of subjects, including fencing and escape artistry.
    • Vigny, a scholar and fighter with a wiry physique that belies his strength.
  • Big Bad: Sir Hugo Bonvilain, high-ranking traitor and the man behind the plot for the throne.
  • Blind Musician: Linus Wynter is a blind piano player.
  • Break the Cutie: This happens to Conor multiple times once he is sent to prison, the horrific conditions changing him completely and almost breaking his spirit.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Conor and Isabella are on the verge of one, but then plot happens and Conor gets thrown in prison. She kisses him at the end of the novel.
  • Clear My Name: Conor plans to do this when he learns that Bonvilain plans to kill Isabella along with his parents. He's successful.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Quite a few of the characters. Conor and Vigny often sparred verbally during sword practice, and they're just two examples. This enters World of Snark at times, a common trope in Eoin Colfer's works.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Otto Malarkey becomes Conor's ally after he beats him up quite thoroughly, the two taking tips from each other.
  • Doomed Fellow Prisoner: When Linus disappears, Conor assumes he has been killed, showing him the brutality of Little Saltee and their ability to make someone 'disappear'. In reality, Victor's message to let him go free finally reached the prison and he spent some time hiding on mainland Ireland.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Sultan Arif, Bonvilain's ally, is quite unnerved at having to shove an old blind man to the ground, much less kill him.
    • He abandons Bonvilain after realizing just how insane he is, when he makes Arif half poison himself.
  • Everyone Can See It: Isabella's and Conor's romance is a surprise only to them.
  • First Kiss: Conor and Isabella share one the day before he leaves for Scotland.
  • Genius Bruiser: King Nicholas and Bonvilain, both physically large roughhousers who are frighteningly sharp. Nicholas is a veteran soldier with a love of physics.
  • Genre Roulette: The book frequently switches the kind of story it's telling. It's a nine-year-old's adventure. No, wait, it's a coming-of-age story. No, wait, it's prison life. No, wait, it's a Great Escape. No, wait, it's a one-man caper. No, wait, it's Clear My Name. This is not a bad thing.
  • Gratuitous French: Conor uses the odd French word while in his Airman persona to pay homage to Victor and because it hilariously terrifies the vaguely xenophobic prison guards.
  • Great Escape: Conor's escape from Little Saltee, an elaborate plan over a number of years.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: Conor is a loveable, ditzy teenage genius... until he reaches Little Saltee and finally becomes more sour and is forced to physically fight for himself.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Conor starts off like this, being a blond-haired straight-up hero who grew up with a loving family. Eventually his moral compass becomes clouded, and he swings into Anti-Hero for a time before being some combination of the two upon conclusion.
  • Historical Fiction: An Alternate History novel that rewrites a lot of history.
  • Hellhole Prison: Little Saltee.
  • I Have No Son!: Declan Broekhart says he has no son because he believes Conor to be dead, but the scenario is set up such that Conor believes his father is denouncing him.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Everyone in the Broekhart family has their heart broken.
      Colfer: I looked through Web sites of old names from the Flemish Dutch. […] I found the name Broekhart, and I thought oh, my God. It's a hero, but also it hints at broken heart.
    • Bonvilain is a Villain with Good Publicity, and his name means "good villain".
  • Missing Mom: Isabella's mother. She died when her daughter was just a baby.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Declan Broekhart, when he realizes that the man he cursed and sent to prison was his own fourteen-year-old son.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Bonvilain actually has "villain" (without one "l") in his name. And yes, that's a real surname.
  • Not Quite Flight: Conner's glider. Achieving true powered flight is his dream, which he achieves at the book's climax.
  • Prefers Rocks to Pillows: King Nicholas is a former soldier, and he's said to sleep on the window seat in his chambers because the bed is too soft.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something:
    • King Nick not only runs the place, he's also responsible for ensuring its technological progress while still having time for his own research projects on the side. This is the reason Bonvilain kills him.
    • Isabella fills this role by the end; she's taken her role as queen and is planning major overhauls to the running of the place, including shutting down the Little Saltee prison and contracting the mining to a professional firm.
  • Science Hero: Conor and Vigny, who are obsessed with creating a perfect flying machine.
  • Self-Poisoning Gambit: At the climax Bonvilain attempts this, trying to poison Queen Isabella and Conor's parents during a shared toast. They suspect he's up to something, however, and refuse to drink even though he does. Later, he is weakened enough by the poison that Declan is able to kill him.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Colfer's descriptions of the period's aircraft are spot-on regarding their reliability (or lack thereof), fragility, and handling problems.
    • He also accurately describes the effects of a stall and a forward slip.
  • Sinister Whistling: Bonvilain whistles a classical piece at one point, highlighting his Wicked Cultured status.
  • Tattooed Crook: Otto Malarkey, who has, among other things, a price list for his services tattooed on his chest. Conor wonders what he'd do if he ever needed to change his prices. Malarkey admits that he'd never really thought about it.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Bonvilain has his Dragon mix a poison, Wolvesbane, which he will put in his wine and serve to his guests (Isabella and Conor's family). The poison is fatal if an entire glass is drunk, so he would only drink half his glass while everyone else would empty theirs. He also tests it on his Dragon to see if he was telling the truth (he was chafing at this point), he was, but it still reduced him to a puking pained fit (symptoms which he warned him about). This comes back to bite him in the climax.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Although he doesn't put himself in the spotlight, Bonvilain is in a position of power and is generally well-respected, holding a position of high esteem with the Saltee monarchy.
  • Warrior Poet: Bonvilain fancies himself to be one of these.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Linus gives this talk to Conor multiple times to encourage him to go back home and reunite with his family after becoming jaded, but it doesn't sink in until Bonvilain attacks Linus and Conor realizes that if he leaves his family will be killed.
  • Wicked Cultured: Bonvilain may be a soldier, but he's also a man of taste.
  • Younger Than They Look: Conor is able to pass himself off as an older man because of his height. This is not necessarily a good thing, since Bonvilain was able to use it against him.