Wednesday Book Club: Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony

Wednesday, 9 July 2008 — 12:37am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony (2006) by Eoin Colfer.

In brief: The fifth entry in Colfer’s “Die Hard with fairies” series for young adults is an enjoyable and fast-paced romp, but it exhibits ominous signs of a series creaking under the combined weight of its established conventions and already-resolved conflicts. Colfer must either raise the stakes in a substantial fashion—merely boosting the violence and fireworks won’t cut it—or let Artemis Fowl make a graceful exit before he, and all his friends, become serial shadows of their former selves.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony, keep reading below.)

Before anyone accuses me of taking too sharp a knife to a book meant for audiences half my age, I should mention that I hold the Artemis Fowl novels in very high esteem. It might just be nostalgia talking—I read them over three years ago, when I may have been more willing to overlook their flaws for the sake of good fun—but I don’t outgrow things easily, and I think I have a sound perspective on what the books are and what they aren’t. They are popcorn entertainments that pretend to no greater ambition—good ones, though, built on a charming premise and a colourful cast. It was a series that felt finished after three volumes, but the fourth adventure (The Opal Deception) spun off the connective threads of the first three so well that it more than justified an extension of the brand.

The series definitely felt finished after four, and in many ways, it still does.

It’s not easy to talk about The Lost Colony without making it sound like a much bigger mess than it actually is. Artemis is a good boy now; gone is the tug-of-war between his selfish interests and the good of the world, and the ethical dimension of how he chooses to pursue them. The supporting characters fare no better now that they all get along; former adversaries are all buddy-buddy, so they follow each other’s orders with little disagreement and together, come off as little more than a crack team of convenient super powers. The two major villains are an undeveloped pair of bullying thugs that have nothing to do with each other. The governing rules of magic, as far as any rules exist, have too little bearing to impose any meaningful limitations or create a sense of danger. It is not even shocking to see beloved characters die, as we are by now so accustomed to seeing them cheat death.

As I understand it, the whole point of the boy genius figure—not just your run-of-the-mill prodigy, either, but the outrageous hyperbole of an Artemis Fowl—is that we can’t quite relate to him except through wish-fulfilment. He is an enigma just inscrutable enough to make us wonder what makes him tick. In the first four books, the answer lay in the fractured family situation at Fowl Manor—the senile mother, the missing father. With all that out of the way and tied up into a neat little bow, there’s not much room for Artemis to grow.

Oh, wait. He’s fourteen, right? Let’s try some hormones on for size. And while we’re at it, why not toss in a standard-issue Ugly Duckling story about the little imp who can’t get by at school because all of his fellow imps are bursting into full-fledged, bloodthirsty demons pumped with demon-testosterone (literally, getting horny)? Just when did these books leap into the netherworld with a shrill cry of “Relate to me, you book-reading teenage boy, I beg you!”?

I’m reluctant to bring Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix into the fray, because it’s not a fair fight, but I must. Many readers take issue with the angst-ridden Harry who loses his temper to everybody—and for my part, I, too, could do without the shouting in all caps—but Phoenix works as a study of an established character going through puberty because his growing pains affect his judgment. And when he makes mistakes, they stick.

Where Artemis Fowl is concerned, puberty could have served as a cutesy Achilles’ heel for a character who desperately needs one, but it doesn’t follow through. Artemis notices a pretty girl, laughs at her quantum physics joke (confession: I did too), and that’s the end of it.

The most promising dynamic in The Lost Colony is between Artemis and the aforementioned filly, the wonderfully named Minerva Paradizo—at long last, a rival and an equal. Colfer has not lost his touch for staging great set pieces: in the best scene of the novel, Artemis observes Minerva in an opera house, trying to predict her every move, as she executes the perfect heist. Moments like these reveal Colfer’s delicate technique for convincing us that his characters are prodigies while adhering to the dictum of “show, don’t tell”. It’s not enough for him to call a kid a genius and list off a CV of degrees and publications, or cop out with a revelation that everything is going according to a brilliant plan, though he does both of those things. His masterminds prove themselves through their powers of observation and the ply of their gambits and contingencies.

Unfortunately, the budding rivalry is over well before the book’s halfway mark: Artemis outsmarts Minerva too quickly, and the rest of the story suffers for it. It’s a pity, because for a while, she makes him look beatable.

Despite all of my complaints, I should reiterate that The Lost Colony is a pleasure to read. Colfer still knows how to write a ripping yarn of surveillance, infiltration, and the occasional double-cross. The humour of the series is still intact: while the titular lost colony of demons is rather dry, there’s something just plain whimsical about seeing its warmongering inhabitants derive their entire knowledge of the human race from a trashy nineteenth-century romance novel entitled Lady Heatherington Smythe’s Hedgerow. The irony (intended or not) is that initially, Artemis Fowl’s knowledge of the fairy world also comes from a stolen fairy book. By all appearances, Colfer has no fear of drawing attention to the intrinsic silliness of his own works, though the pessimist in me remains concerned that the series will come to drown itself in self-parody.

I suppose we’ll know more about the series’ future in short order, as the sixth instalment, Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox, hits stores next week. Perhaps the most damning thing I can say about The Lost Colony is that I’m not at all excited about the prospect of yet another sequel.


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