a review from our archives (first published September 18, 2012)
Teenage criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl first appeared in 2001, and was immediately acclaimed as “another Harry Potter.” This was exaggeration—the author rejected it firmly and rightly. Harry, despite his growing pains and existential struggles, is basically a good kid. Artemis projects a ruthless, unfeeling exterior that softens only gradually over a series of eight volumes. The last of the eight appeared in July, as eagerly grabbed and gobbled as the previous installments. Most readers, to judge by Amazon reviews, were satisfied with the conclusion, but a few found it derivative and unconvincing. (I’ll reveal the bare outline of the conclusion in a few paragraphs, so if you are sensitive to spoilers, stop now.)
“Unconvincing” is a relative term in the world of Artemis Fowl: a mashup of fantasy, science fiction, spy thriller, and police procedural. As the series begins, he’s the only child of Artemis Sr. and Angeline Fowl, his father being an Irish crime lord who has, in the first volume, apparently been kidnapped (by the Russian Mafia, it turns out). Artemis Jr. is obsessed with finding his father and has determined that the solution lies in the Lower Elements, or realm of the fairies. Fairies, gnomes, trolls, elves, pixies and the like are not supposed to exist—since the rise of humans on the planet, they’ve retreated underground. With the help of his super-loyal bodyguard, Butler, Artemis has tracked down reliable underground sources, and his plan is to kidnap a fairy in order to extort gold from the fairy hoard. The unlucky victim is Holly Short, a member of the LEP, or Lower Elements Police. Her boss is Commander Julius Root, who enlists the entire LEP in getting her back. Two key fairy allies are Foaly, a tech-savvy centaur, and Mulch Diggums, a “kleptomaniac dwarf” who tunnels under human dwellings by means of a unique—to put it nicely–digestive system.
I thought that “finding father” would be a major theme of the series, but Senior is found in the second volume, and plays only walk-on parts after that. The main series antagonist, who appears in Book Two, is Opal Koboi, an Asiatic pixie who cooks up a total of three plans for world domination. She is equal to Artemis in brilliance, but over the course of the series he develops the advantage of human feeling and a moral compass, which enables him to pull off a scheme in the last volume that she totally doesn’t see coming. But readers familiar with the major themes of western literature probably will.
He sacrifices his life for his friends, not to mention the entire human race. But, by a combination of scientific manipulation and spiritual transmutation, he is raised to life again.
Harry Potter fans will recall something similar happening to their hero. Sacrificial death also occurs at the end of the Bartimaeus and Hungry Cities multi-volume series, though without resurrection. Funny thing about that—it’s as though the Hero’s Journey crowned with the ultimate sacrifice is the only story we really know, deep in our bones. That’s what some readers found derivative, though the author might argue that if a hero is strong enough to develop through eight volumes, death-and-resurrection is the highest possible ending he could aspire to.
Whether Artemis is a strong enough protagonist to carry an eight-part series on his back is up to the reader, but in my opinion he gets considerable help, not just from the supporting characters, but from a lively, fairly sophisticated narrative style, fascinating gadgets, technical talk and at least five death-defying, cliff-hanging situations in every volume. And lots of laughs, especially via Mulch Diggums.
The fireworks may overpower the theme, which could be stated as “We know we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (I John 3:14). Early in The Last Guardian, Artemis’s little brother Myles (born in the course of the series) recalls his brother telling him that “Intelligence will always win out in the end.” Myles is extremely intelligent, but being smart doesn’t protect him from becoming a pawn in Opal’s evil scheme. It’s left to Artemis to act out the ultimate conclusion: “Love makes everything else seem . . . inconsequential.” He’s been a long time coming, and readers will disagree on how convincing his conversion is—there’s very little orthodox religious connotation, though Artemis wonders briefly if St. Peter will greet him at the pearly gates. But for light reading these books do no harm, and may even stimulate some thought. And for code-and-cypher fans, several of the volumes include codes on the cover and inside pages, solvable through clues on the website.
Over the course of the series, elements of occult practices, such as mediation, meditation, and magic, as well as references to evolution. It’s metaphysical mixed bag, but the author is not necessarily advocating for any of these things.
Overall Rating: 3.75 (out of 5)
Worldview/moral value: 3.5
Artistic/literary value: 4.25