There aren’t all that many books for children that follow the antihero. I’m puzzling over whether I can think of any more. (Any of my readers know of others?) Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is an antihero in every sense. Son of a rich crime lord, descended from a line of crime lords, young Fowl has been left in charge of the family business and the family estate. The first book of his series, Artemis Fowl, opens with the Fowl family in financial trouble and Artemis having taken his manservant, Butler, to Ho Chi Minh City with a scheme to restore his fortune. Artemis poisons and then bargains the antidote with an addicted fairy, convincing her to break the laws of her people and let him see the Book that describes the rituals governing the People and the People’s magic. Artemis takes pictures of its pages and leaves the fairy with a detox medicine.
This is a book that I have ignorantly recommended as popular for young readers who have also enjoyed fantasy adventures. I am withdrawing my blasé recommendation having read it and will now not recommend it unless I have been able to question the parent or grandparent about how much they would like their children exposed to certain aspects of the darker side of humanity. Addiction, alcohol, drugs, insanity, violence, criminal masterminds who might be mistaken for the hero of the tale, and potty humor are all potential topics that parents might prefer were avoided. The potty humor in particular and perhaps also Artemis’ age mean that this is a series that finds its shelf in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble, but I think most of its content and the grayness of its protagonist make it more appropriately a teen novel.
The initial portrayal of Artemis is one of a cold and calculating individual who has no pity for other beings and will do anything if doing so has the potential to help Artemis further his own goals. It was the cracks in this façade that helped me to push through the book. The tale of Artemis’ Moriarty-like criminality was broken by moments of domestic heartache, reminders that Artemis is despite his cleverness and ruthlessness a mere boy of twelve, including a brief shattering of Artemis’ confident wit that left him seated on the floor muttering that he doesn’t “like lollipops” (216). That he truly does pine for his father, presumed dead, and his mother, driven mad by the loss of his father and infrequently able to recognize her son, made Artemis pitiable if not likable, and the familial reasons behind his crimes do not excuse them if they do for a moment soften me towards Artemis, even as I recognize that his actions are still purely selfish.
Against Artemis are arranged the armies of the People, a people that includes all the creatures of mythology living below ground in a city of modern and magical technology. The People that we meet in Artemis Fowl are mostly either members of the police force or the criminal underworld and while Colfer uses potty humor and sibling teasing to try to lighten the People, they remain gritty and steeped in politics.
I recognize that I am supposed to like Captain Holly Short, the first female member of the LEPRecon Unit, who subdued a troll, was caught because of her carelessness, and later fought to defend her captors. But even as she planned her own escape and defended those in danger, Holly did not for me seem to merit my attention, and maybe that was partially Artemis’ bias, but it felt like Colfer’s. Holly felt like the token female painted as strong for the sake of being feminist but not proving to me either her femininity or her feminism.
Of all the characters that we meet, Artemis’ manservant, Butler, was to me the most likeable—loyal to his master, whom he also considers a friend, surprisingly gentle, brave, and greatly protective of those he considers his responsibility (Artemis and even more so Butler’s younger sister, Juliet)—and yet his role within the text was as a minion to the villain.
I want there to be a hero, and I can’t find anyone but a minion that I particularly like.
Colfer’s is a dark view of humanity. It is not a world for those who want a happy ending, though this was happier than I expected, and it’s not one for those who want to live in blissful ignorance of the darkness of people’s souls.
I personally like to have clearer though not faultless dividers between right and wrong.
Artemis Fowl seems to me to be trying to appeal to readers of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon who have grown older and more world-weary but perhaps not much more mature. I prefer Cowell’s hero to Colfer’s antihero, Hiccup’s diplomacy to Artemis’ cynically-motivated crime.
Colfer, Eoin. Artemis Fowl. New York: Hyperion, 2002. First published in 2001.
This review is not endorsed by Eoin Colfer or Hyperion Books. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.