Friday, January 14, 2005

More Kid Stuff

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer, Read by Nathaniel Parker, Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004

Following J.K. Rowling’s example, children’s authors have lately decided that the realm of magic is a goldmine for book series. There are some like the Charlie Bone books, which are patently rip offs (young boy? check; dead parent? check; magical school? check; a boy and girl at said school who Charlie befriends? check), and then there are the series that bear superficial resemblances such as the Artemis Fowl books.

Yes, Artemis is gifted, yes, his father is missing presumed dead, yes, there is magic involved. But Artemis is a gifted criminal, a genius with no magical abilities who gets involved with the fairy folk, or The People as they call themselves, in order to rob them of fairy gold.

And these are not your grandpa’s fairies either. They are technologically advanced and the elves lead the underground government overseeing trolls, goblins, centaurs, dwarves, pixies, sprites, etc. Humans are completely unaware of their existence, and The People strive to keep it that way.

Which is why Artemis Fowl is so dangerous to them. He and his manservant/bodyguard Butler kidnap LEPrecon Captain Holly Short, determined to hold her for a ransom in elvish gold. (LEPrecon being Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance, the guardians of the fairy world and those who work keeping trolls and goblins from rebelling as well as preventing human discovery.) The subsequent twists as the fairies close in on Artemis and how he escapes them make for quite a good read.

Unusually for a series, the first book is the best of the lot. I always have difficulties reading series because of how tiresome the characters and situations can become, always pulling the same stunts, cracking the same jokes, digging the same ruts. Colfer is wise to avoid beating too many of his jokes over and over, yet by book three I was glad to be done with it all.

What Colfer does in the first book in the series is tell the best kind of cops and robbers story, where you root for both sides. Both Holly Short and Artemis Fowl are charming characters and their respective storylines are entertaining. As the chess match between the sides heats up, you find your allegiances shifting between The People and the humans. This kind of writing leaves you grinning with the pleasurable cognitive dissonance engendered by wanting competing teams to win. In a way they do, The People and Artemis coming to a kind of understanding among themselves.

The story is delightfully Hiberno-centric with such elements as Ireland being the center of the world, where the magical places and the non-magical places overlap. It is at Tara where the fairies tap the most powerful geological magic. The Irish are often said to be the most in tune with magic and The People. Into this I expected kneejerk British bashing, but Colfer is thankfully free of this prejudice.

As this book is directed at children it has the now more common weakness for potty jokes. Dwarves, for instance, tunnel through the ground by unhinging their jaws and eating dirt. This of course leads to rocky poop and excessive flatulence. Clay, don’t you know, is the beans of the dwarf world. When the criminal dwarf Mulch Diggums breaks into houses by tunneling under them, he always starts by "unhooking his bum flap." No matter how many times in the course of the series I heard that particular phrase and its variants, it always made me smile. Flatulence humor, a British and Irish comedy staple, is a fine feature in the general load of overly hygienic children's books glutting bookstores.

That elves have the power to heal people by magic is probably a fact that should have been introduced before the book’s climax, as it makes the resolution feel like a bit of a cheat. But all in all, Colfer is good at twisting the plot, the mastermind of Artemis always one step ahead of all the other characters.

Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident, by Eoin Colfer, Read by Nathaniel Parker, Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004

The second book brings back all the same characters, most amusingly criminal dwarf Mulch Diggums, who’s been on the lam in LA, breaking into Hollywood homes to steal Oscars. This fun plotline plays out as counterpoint during one of the many exciting Artemis moments. It was so enjoyable that I was saddened when the narration returned to the main story.

This sequel also features far more of the non-titular characters, which is its weakness and its strength. It could perhaps be seen as a painting yourself into a corner: once you've invented a genius character each successive installment requires you to come up not only with new ways to demonstrate it, but ones that don't simply repeat previous brain power exhibitions. But as a second book after the first one dedicated so much space to Artemis, it is important to flesh out the other characters as well.

We learn more about Holly Short, seeing inside the dynamic between her and her boss, Commander Root, who is clearly based on the classic police chief mold, grumpy, brusque, yet a sweet heart under all the hate. We learn more of the fairies own resident genius, the paranoid technofile centaur Foley. And throughout the course of the goblin rebellion, we are given internal glimpses into the Lower Element world and its hierarchies.

Yet without Artemis, many group scenes fall kind of flat, having more activity among the other characters with occasional Artemis asides. He makes sotto voce comments along the way, but he's nowhere near the dominant force that he showed himself in the first book.

What's most curious about The Arctic Incident is that at its beginning, Artemis is initially working to rescue his father from the Russian mafiyah. (That’s the book’s spelling. I don’t get it.) Book one let us know that young Master Fowl hadn’t given up hope that his father would turn up alive, and book two opens with the Russians contacting Artemis for a ransom. As he knows he’ll need fairy help, Artemis contacts his new “friends” in the LEP and a deal is struck: for his assistance quelling the rebellion, hey’ll have fairy power behind him in the rescue of his father. Yet he spends such a long time assisting the fairies that the occasional mention of the hostage reminds you that that's what the whole book was supposedly about.

This, however, gives us the strong conclusion with two climaxes, the combined forces shutting down the rebellion and mounting a daring rescue in Arctic Russia. The book concludes before we meet much of the long absent Mr. Fowl, but fear not, as this is (so far) a trilogy.

Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, by Eoin Colfer, Read by Nathaniel Parker, Listening Library, Inc., 2004

The Eternity Code starts with a deal gone bad that ends up with Artemis’ bodyguard Butler shot dead. Artemis has tried to convince ruthless American software tycoon Jon Spiro to deal with him. Spiro crosses him before chapter one is even concluded, stealing Artemis’ invention and fleeing the scene. Quick thinking by Artemis allows him to save Butler’s life through cryogenics. The bodyguard is killed in a seafood restaurant, and Artemis stows his body in an immense ice chest to help keep the brain alive while he contacts Holly Short to magic the wound away. It's a quick and exciting beginning, a kind of 007 flash.

The rest of the book focuses on Artemis and the LEPrecon team attempting to get back the C-Cube, a multimedia piece of artificial intelligence Artemis cooked up with stolen fairy technology. The side plot of Artemis’ father returning home from the Helsinki hospital where he had been recuperating from the abuse he took from his Russian kidnappers barely factors into the book.

In fact, it is the return of Artemis’ father and the moral proddings from Holly Short that feature as the least convincing parts of this third installment. From both directions, Artemis is being coached to go legit and to give up all his plotting and scheming, to “regain your childhood” as his father puts it. This is, of course, a ridiculous notion if you’re a fourteen-going-on-fifteen criminal genius.

The conversion of Artemis by the book’s end, at least his surface conversion, is Colfer’s attempt to provide the character with some growth so as to make him deeper, more interesting, more important than he would otherwise be. And this robs the book of some of its focus and innovation. Wherein the other books were interesting because of the nature of the conflicts, The Eternity Code falls back on that classic adventure cliché, the crazed megalomaniac who wants to rule the world. Colfer writes the unfolding of that story with many enjoyable curves in the plot, but its central premise is weak and the whole father subplot never really gels.

The not so subtle hints that the story isn’t over, which is confirmed by Colfer’s website, gives me both hope that Artemis’ story can take one of two promising turns. Either more attention can be paid to the family backstory and Artemis can be fully realized as a three dimensional character or less attention can be paid to it and we can get back to exciting dashing about. Toying with one then the other appears to be weakening the whole. Only time will tell.

Colfer isn't blessed with Rowling's power for creating characters you can truly feel for, and I think it's unwise for him to try. The Artemis Fowl books are unlikely to ever manage that kind of age group crossover appeal, nor do I think Colfer is wise to try this by appealing to our sympathies with Fowl. It's quite clear to me that the series' real appeal is in dashing daring do and feats of genius. Why mess with what so obviously works? There's no shame in writing kids' books if you do it well.

The series’ reader, Nathaniel Parker, manages his job with delightful brio. He provides a stunning array of accents. Almost the entire British Isles and Ireland are represented (save, I think, the Welsh), as well as a passable American and a number of indeterminate Lower Element dialects. The producers have smartly followed the Harry Potter example once more by retaining Parker, whereas the Lemony Snicket books unwisely changed readers midseries. As long as Colfer keeps turning out Artemis Fowl books, Parker should be in for some fun work.

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