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Artemis Fowl :The Eternity Code
Eoin Colfer
London: Puffin Books (Penguin), 2003.
£6.99, 329 pages, ISBN 0-670-91459-2.

Judie Newman
University of Nottingham


With Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code Eoin Colfer has scored another smash hit, following on from Artemis Fowl (2001), Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident (2002), and six other bestselling books for children since 1998. The familiar cast is reassembled: Artemis, the boy criminal mastermind; giant Butler, his faithful bodyguard (now revealed as Domovoi, named for a Slavic guardian spirit); Juliet, Butler's sister, a third dan black belt in seven martial arts since the age of eight (now on her way to a successful career in American wrestling); Captain Holly Short, drop-dead gorgeous eighty-year old fairy and police officer for the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaisance); Commander Root, her boss, in the familiar mode of the surly precinct captain with a heart of gold; Foaly the centaur; and Mulch Diggums, mud-eating and excreting, flatulent dwarf, the favourite of small boys everywhere (here masquerading as Mo Digence, a mafia hitman).

To an unsympathetic eye, the cast have a rather too worthy look, involving capable women unhampered by gender or age, animals occupying equal status with human beings, major roles for those who are stature-challenged, and a male genius who is in many respects a nerdish foul-up, low on athletic prowess and lacking in derring-do. As usual, the denizens of the lower fairy world (as symbolised by the eco-mulcher) are environmentally friendly, as opposed to the polluting human beings (Mud People) on the surface, and both groups are technologically advanced. Colfer draws on the full resources of the European myth-kitty to flesh out his various supernatural beings. The attractions of the tale, however, have little to do with "improving" cultural features or political correctness. Celtic myth sits cheek by jowl with Irish jokes (as witness Loafers McGuire, from Kilkenny, a mobster-groupie who joins the Chicago mob after his efforts to form a Celtic mafia end in failure.) Above all, there is a total lack of nostalgic mumbo-jumbo or tacky New Age vibes of the gift-shoppe and crystals variety. Holly Short surfaces through Stonehenge much more easily because it has been fenced off to keep the hippies out of a heritage site: "Strange that Mud People seemed more concerned with the past than the present." (58). Artemis may be a criminal genius but his desires are materialistic rather than metaphysical. The enemy are the Mafia, and the emphasis is on crime, not sin.

Unlike J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman, Colfer writes fantasy for secularists. However often good triumphs in Pullman or Rowling, the sense of real, active evil in Manichean terms survives in the religious paraphernalia in which their novels abound. As a result, even when challenging orthodox religious belief , both are always at risk of reinforcing the importance of the systems which they are contesting. Colfer is more concerned with technomagic and its (mis)applications than with the forces of the dark side, and the characters' misdeeds stem from the usual petty human foibles, greed, lust and the coveting of one's neighbour's ox and ass. Characters grumble and squabble in a general atmosphere of minor irritation. Demons are more of the comic Valentine-card variety, pink with a pitchfork, than Rowling's dreadful Dementors. (Tattoos and brightly-coloured designer dentures adorn the hitmen.) In the plot the threat of hell is used by a supposedly dead Butler to force a credulous villain to confess, in a hilarious parody of Faust and Mephistophiles. As a result, there is a great deal of fast-paced action, rather than a lot of meditation upon it. The downside to this tactic is the lack of atmospheric locations, literary descriptions, or symbolic evocations. In Colfer's world Pullman's subtle knife would merely fork up some pizza. But as a result the plot cracks on at a good speed, with none of the longueurs to which Rowling, in particular, is prone. Nobody in this novel sits down to explain over several pages all their past history; the reader is allowed to use personal initiative to make the connections. The wise-cracking dialogue and comic effects are much more reminiscent of stand-up comedy and radio shows than of costume drama and epic landscape film.

The child of a drama teacher and actress mother, Colfer wrote plays and comic books as a child, and went on to direct and act in prize-winning dramas. The pared-down scene-setting, and the emphasis on dramatic action, have the virtues of a script or scenario; events are replayable in the reader's head with the individual's own imaginative additions and interpretations. The tone is in no sense preachy. Irony is the keynote. (Colfer's website message ends "Have a 'Fowl' day.") The high-tech, high-spec quality of the story suggests that where Harry Potter offers a great film experience (nice and long, suitable for parents and grannies, and with plenty of opportunities for the purchase of snacks, drinks and spin-off toys) Artemis Fowl would make a terrific computer game. The mode is interactive, not passive. A code runs through the pages, with information on the website which provides the key. It is relatively simple to crack the messages, though with some 300 code words it is rather time consuming and the tiny code-building blocks are a strain on the eyes. Decoded, the symbols on the front cover read "Think Fairy Think Again".

The specifics of the tale are also fully contemporary. The plot hinges upon a small red cube, the size of a mini-disc player, which supposedly combines video, phone, TV, verbally-controlled computer, diagnostic tool, and DVD player, and in its multiple omni-sensor functions renders all other technology obsolete. It is at least two years ahead of any legislation which could regulate it, and a desirable prize for the corporate criminals who plan to exploit it. Artemis Fowl, like many a young hero, is effectively parent-free, but whereas Potter's parents are dead and memorialised, Artemis's mother is fragile, and his father recovering slowly from a two-year imprisonment by the Russian mafia. Artemis fears that Dad will curtail his illegal activities when he recovers, and even undergoes something of a moral conversion when he realises just how desirable that might be, but is saved from reform by an ingenious mind-wiping device. (Conveniently this also returns him to a prepubescent state of mind. Unlike the latest Harry Potter, there is no danger of a major outbreak of kissing.) Children will identify easily with Artemis, but he also has much to offer anxious parents. The opening chapter situates him in a fish restaurant (En Fin) abjuring the child menu in favour of pan-seared shark and swordfish on a bed of vegetables. He likes fish. He eats his greens. He even drinks mineral water. In the event however, it turns out that he might have done better with a Big Mac. Every single customer and waiter in the restaurant is fishy—in the pay of Jon Spiro, the mafia boss, who promptly makes off with the C-cube. The restaurant is blown up, sending lobster scurrying in all directions. Artemis is saved by the combined efforts of Butler and a large Black Forest gateau which cushions his fall. Butler is shot , apparently dead, but saved by a combination of fast food and cryogenics. Artemis loads his body onto the dessert trolley and leaves him in the restaurant freezer until Holly can regenerate him. Food continues as the mainspring of the plot. Captain Short is en route to the police station with four rowdy goblin hoods (caught after a night of gluttony in an insect delicatessen and almost lowered into the fast-fryer by the deli owner) when she realises that the theft of the cube exposes the LEP to discovery and conquest. Somewhat wearily, she recognises her mission :"This future of our civilization thing was happening more and more lately."(39).

Fortunately a flight is available to Stonehenge, now revealed in its real function as an outlet for pizza, and therefore a favoured excursion destination for gnomes, seen here wearing pizza hats, eating pizza icecream, and treating Holly to an in-flight rendition of all 114 verses of the pizza song. With help from Mulch (fortified by a bucket of diced worms and beetles, sautéed in a rainwater and moss vinaigrette) the villains are eventually defeated. But this is where the reviewer needs to hold back. Any more details would reveal the twists and turns of the ingenious plot, and spoil the story. There are plenty of surprises along the way, and a very clever deployment of encoded diary entries. It is however impossible to resist revealing one development. The novel closes with an enticing trailer for the next in the series, as Artemis discloses to his diary that he is about to be despatched to boarding school. Watch out Harry Potter!



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