Artemis Fowl, progenitor of an eight-book series, was when it first appeared a book that really put the “novel” in… well, novel. Young adult fantasy does like its fairy tales lately, but it’s usually down to the plucky teenaged everyman discovering magical lineage or the plucky teenaged everywoman discovering magical romance. Colfer appeared on the scene like a dapper ringmaster of a nine-ringed fairy circus: Artemis Fowl was a crime novel, a battle of wits, a thriller, a comedy, a cop drama, with fairies somehow woven seamlessly into the tumult. It was all quite funny and well-managed, but it must be admitted that the elements that really made the novel seem so fresh and lively were the premise and the audacity of following it through.
That premise is as follows: twelve-year-old supergenius Artemis Fowl (the inheritor of the Fowl criminal empire following the presumed demise of Artemis Fowl senior aboard a cola freighter bombed by the Russian mob) is a boy who still believes in fairies. Being who and what he is, however, he hatches a plan not to meet the fairies or beg for three wishes but in fact to take them for every cent they’re worth. His method? Kidnapping and ransom. Enter Holly Short, an elf and member of the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance unit), a sprightly but somewhat rebellious officer. As Artemis’s plans unfold and the fairies start cracking out their biggest guns to thwart him, events quickly exceed the expectations of everyone involved — even those of the sinister boy genius.
This novel is just fun. Colfer is delightfully witty, but a lot of the novel’s force (which latter installments tend to lack) is derived from the comparatively darker moments, of black humor or straight-up seriousness of tone. Artemis Fowl is fascinating in that despite its youth audience, it really doesn’t pull its punches. Artemis may have some redeeming features, but he really is a selfish little egomaniac, no way around that. The human is the villain. The fairies, for their part, are often cartoonish and over-the-top but the comedy can only go so far to mask the fact that they’re genuinely willing to kill Artemis and his compatriots at the drop of a hat to secure their safety. All of this lends the text a kind of wicked excitement, as the reader careens from one action scene to the next with no idea of what will happen next.
The book has its flaws. Some of Colfer’s melodrama can get a bit too silly even for a teenage audience, and while the plot is certainly gripping, the reader can’t really match wits with Artemis as they could in a really great psychological thriller as Colfer tends to withhold information until the moment it becomes relevant, making Artemis’s strokes of genius appear to come out of nowhere. Finally, it must be said that Artemis Fowl is not meant to strike a chord of much emotional depth. It’s a comedy and a thriller but will accomplish little beyond being diverting to its audience.
That said, though, this is a book that was never trying to be much of an artistic triumph. It’s the summer blockbuster of young adult fiction, all stops pulled out and all hell allowed to break loose. It’s a flashy, funny little explosion of a book, and while it’s certainly not going to go down in the history of children’s literature as might HARRY POTTER or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, it does what it’s intended to do and then some.