This book is Airman by Eoin Colfer. He's the author of the Artemis Fowl series and The Supernaturalist and The Wish List. I think he's certainly one of the best authors around, and I hope he continues to crank out crazy stories and ideas for a long time to come.
Airman is about Conor Broekhart, who lives on the island of Great Saltee, a few miles north of Ireland. A few miles away from Great Saltee lies Little Saltee, which is a prison island full of diamonds. Law-breakers on Great Saltee are sent to Little Saltee, where they are forced to work in the diamond mines there until they have either paid their debt to society or died. (The Saltees are actual islands, but they have been uninhabited since around the time that this book would have taken place).
Conor Broekhart is the son of the captain of the Saltee Sharpshooters, an elite rifle group dedicated to defending the Saltee Wall. Since Little Saltee is home to the richest diamond mine in the world, many invasion attempts have been made on the Saltees over the centuries, and it takes the very best soldiers around to keep the islands from falling into enemy hands.
Conor spends his days in the castle on Great Saltee, having adventures with the princess Isabella, and he dreams of being able to fly (he was born in a hot air balloon at the Paris World's Fair). His tutor, Victor Vigny, is just as passionate about flying as Conor himself, so they spend their days designing flying machines, soaking up knowledge about the world around them, fencing, and shooting. Unfortunately, his life is about to be turned upside down.
The evil Marshall Hugo Bonvilain, captain of the Saltees' foot soldiers, kills the king and Victor, and Conor is the only witness. When Conor confronts Bonvilain immediately after the murders, Bonvilain overpowers Conor and uses him as a puppet to reach an evil goal. He tells Conor's parents that Conor died a valiant death trying to save the king, and he tells Conor that he has framed him for the murders and the entire island of Great Saltee hates him. Through very clever deceits, Bonvilain manages to fool both parties into believing what he wants them to believe, and can manipulate them accordingly.
Conor is transported to the diamond mines on Little Saltee, where he is forced to work in the diving bell, mining for diamonds underwater where conditions are dangerous and his mining partner is more dangerous still. I won't divulge anything more about his mining partner, but rest assured, it's an awesome part.
The years roll past and Conor is still stuck on Little Saltee, and he has been shaped into a tough, smart, and desperate person. Princess Isabella is due to be crowned Queen, and Conor has been carefully cultivating an escape plan that revolves around her coronation. When the coronation is moved ahead two weeks, Conor is hard-pressed to keep on schedule. Does he eventually escape Little Saltee, even with these complications? Of course! That's only the first half of the book! Conor escapes, all goes well, and the next amazing section of the book begins.
Conor leaves behind his life as Conor Broekhart and becomes the Airman, a black-clothed, flying thief. Victor left behind a Martello tower full of equipment needed to build flying machines, and Conor utilizes these to create a glider that can transport him across the sea, provided the wind cooperates. Conor is no petty thief, however. He is stealing diamonds that he has carefully been saving up on Little Saltee for the past three years. Yes, Conor designs a glider and flies back to his hated prison island, in order to steal diamonds and make himself a rich man. Throughout the course of this section, there are many amazing parts that both demonstrate the sheer awesomeness of the characters that Eoin Colfer has thought up, as well as showing some great character development along the way.
Marshall Bonvilain eventually discovers Conor's escape and learns where he is hiding, and leaves him with a message detailing Conor on Bonvilain's plans to murder the Queen and Conor's family. Conor knows this is a trap set up for Bonvilain to kill him as well, but Conor is our valiant and fearless protagonist, and he has to do something!
The rest of the book is too good to give away, so you'll just have to read it. It's full of Eoin Colfer's clever wit, with humor-filled dialog and superfluous bits that add to the hilarity. It's not just a funny book, though. It's an excellent read with an amazing plot that never seems to be going the way you want it to -even up to the very end- but somehow still ends up awesome anyway.
This book receives ten stars out of ten by me, poojalooba_cow. I'm no official critic or anything, and I'm probably more than a little bit biased, but I have been around the block and I've read plenty of books, so I can say I have a pretty good idea of what's good and what's boring. Just for the record, I was going to give it nine out of ten before, because I felt that it didn't have as much of Eoin Colfer's staple cleverness and subtlety. After you read it more than once, though (I've read it twice in the last week), you realize that all along it did have some very clever bits, you just have to have read it more than once or remember all the little confusing bits until they're resolved. You have to dig kinda deep, but everything resolves and is very witty and sharp and fresh. Highly recommended read.