This review contains spoilers.
Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl was one of my very favourite books when I was about thirteen. I reread it on holiday in April, because what else are holidays for?
Its eponymous boy genius is – like many child protagonists – effectively an orphan: his father, Artemis Fowl the First, is missing presumed dead, with a sizeable portion of the vast Fowl fortune lost along with him; his mother has withdrawn into depression, or “nervous tension”, as her doctor describes it. In an attempt to rebuild the Fowl fortune, the twelve-year-old Artemis embarks on an ambitious, not to say unprecedented, plan: capturing a fairy and holding it to ransom.
Despite appearances, Artemis Fowl is set in the present day. And its fairies are not twee Victorian flower fairies; nor are they the mystical, dangerous fae who stalk the edges of novels like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell or Lud-in-the-Mist. Colfer’s fairies have only two magical powers – hypnotism and healing – but these are supplemented by massively advanced technology that has so far kept them hidden from humanity. As a result, Artemis Fowl is at first glance more thriller than fairy tale, weaving Artemis’ plot to separate the fairies from their gold with the fairy police’s attempt to rescue his hostage, Captain Holly Short, who also happens to be the first female officer in the Recon unit. (The fairy police organisation is the LEP; thus the Recon unit is LEPrecon.) There’s a chain-smoking, permanently apoplectic superior officer, Commander Root, and a fast-talking, paranoid tech guy, Foaly. Colfer knows his genre well: the novel dabbles amusingly in parody without becoming distracted from its storytelling.
So its generic markers are those of the thriller; but it does have the structural beats of a Celtic fairytale. Colfer is Irish; so is his boy hero, and much of the novel is set in Ireland, at Fowl Manor, seat of the Fowl family for generations without count. And the fairies, though by now driven far underground by human activity (their main city, Haven, seems to be located somewhere under Europe), regard Ireland as the “old country”.
I know hardly anything about Irish fairy tales – I’ve read a couple, that’s all – so this next bit is all vague speculation. Artemis Fowl is – fairly unusually for MG/YA fantasy – resolutely amoral: we find ourselves rooting for both the LEP and for Artemis at different points during the story. In that respect, Artemis feels like a fairy tale trickster: he’s rewarded not for being a good person, but for being one of the few who can outwit these powerful beings. Specifically, his trickery feels semantic, though technically it isn’t: the fairies’ key weapon is a time-stop, which forces anyone who enters it to stay in the same state of consciousness until it breaks down, or they leave. (Incidentally, I think this has parallels to the weird way time works in Celtic Faerie – people coming back unchanged after hundreds of years, etc.) Artemis escapes the time-stop, and wins against the fairies, by taking powerful sleeping pills, altering his state of consciousness. It’s the kind of trick that should look like bullshit, but which works in a story because it plays on words, because it exploits a loophole in how something is said. In short, it’s a fairy tale trick.
I think what’s wonderful about Artemis Fowl is that it’s an entirely original take on Faerie, one which manages to incorporate all sorts of real-world concerns, including institutional sexism, mental health and climate change – unlike many “updated” fairy tales, which tend towards nostalgic, oppressive structures. It’s funny and well-paced, with a wry voice and a genuine affection for its characters. And it ages well, too: I wasn’t disappointed with this re-read, as can happen with re-encountered childhood favourites. In short: I enjoyed it.