Goodbye Artemis, hello Barnaby


PRETEEN FICTION:Eoin Colfer’s criminal mastermind has his last adventure, John Boyne sends his hero on a journey and Pierce Feiritear brings us back to the 1969 moon landing

WITH THE PUBLICATION of Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian (Puffin, £12.99), we now have the eighth – and, we understand, the final – volume in Eoin Colfer’s sequence of novels featuring his young “criminal mastermind” hero. The international success of these novels may be attributed, in the main, to three factors.

First, they have a central character sufficiently multitalented, resourceful and subversive to appeal to youthful imaginations, while indicating a potential to grow into someone who might gradually shed his early adolescent egoism in the interest of greater altruism.

Second, they feature quick-moving and highly charged narratives, shot through with echoes of ancient Irish myth and legend but simultaneously packed with references to the latest developments in the contemporary and futuristic worlds of technology and communication.

Third, they are typified by a mischievous sense of humour, always idiosyncratic, frequently (mildly) scatological, manifesting itself in a fondness for colourful characterisation and good (or bad) puns: how about a dwarf called Kolin Oskopy or a “gnome warlock” called Shayden Fruid?

This concluding volume exhibits all of these characteristics but is particularly successful in delineating young Artemis’s move away from self-regard. The emphasis continues to be on the most basic element of all fantasy, the conflict between good and evil, the evil to be thwarted coming here in the form of an old enemy, Opal Koboi, now in full megalomaniac flight to attain world domination. “We are staring into the abyss,” says Artemis; “Harma-geddon”, as Beckett, one of Artemis’s younger brothers, describes it, may indeed be imminent. (Yes, Beckett: there is another brother called Myles).

Numerous twists and turns of fortune ensue as we are led inexorably towards the final battle. The precise details of the conflict and its aftermath remind us that nothing in the Colfer world is quite what it seems.

Children’s novels with such an explicit message as John Boyne’s The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket (Doubleday, £10.99) are not, thankfully perhaps, as common as they once were. It is, though, difficult to be overcritical in this case, given that the message is one to which very few could reasonably object – other, that is, than those parents whose attitudes to their children are here so delightfully lampooned. Pity poor Barnaby, born with a condition that makes him defy the laws of gravity and, by extension, be perceived as defying all notions of the “normal”, as defined and endorsed by his ultraconservative parents. He realises, however, by the time he has reached the age of eight, that he will be one of those who welcome difference rather than fear it.

The process of his journey towards self- acceptance, related in a structure that is essentially episodic, provides very entertaining reading. It is, for this young Australian, a journey both literal and metaphorical, the literal dimension involving nothing less than a world tour on which he will meet a diverse cross-section of other humans whose lives have been, ultimately, enriched by their determination to stand up to the pressures of convention.

This is a book very much on the side of the child, operating rather in the same way that, for example, the children’s novels of Roald Dahl operate. But Boyne’s humour is much gentler and subtler than Dahl’s, even occasionally taking young readers into areas (such as New York’s art world) where they might miss some of the slyly satirical subtext. The pages describing Barnaby’s arrival in Ireland, complete with a walk-on part for Miriam O’Callaghan and mention of a president capable of giving “a stern lecture in two languages”, merit close reading!

Oliver Jeffers’s black-and-white illustrations, nicely complemented by their pithy, “handwritten” captions, capture both the wit and pathos of Boyne’s text.

For many of today’s young readers the world of Pierce Feiritear’s My Apollo Summer (Pixie Books, €6.50) may seem as far removed from their own realities as Colfer or Boyne’s fantasies. The Co Kerry of 1969, resurrected here with a mixture of nostalgia and affection, serves as setting for a leisurely paced story in which an American widowed mother and her two children visit the area from which her ancestors had emigrated. But 14-year-old Danny would, initially at least, prefer to be back in their native Florida, participating in the excitement of moon landings. Feiritear skilfully moves between the Irish and American dimensions of his narrative – the occasional references to Vietnam are particularly telling – and in the process gives us a novel offering many insights into cultural difference and historical change.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books and reading

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