Sunday, 30 March 2008

Eoin Colfer, Anthony Horowitz

AIRMAN Eoin Colfer, Puffin, 455 pages, paperback, NZ$25
ISBN 978-0-141-38336-1
ARTEMIS FOWLE AND THE LOST COLONY Eoin Colfer, Puffin, 376 pages, paperback, NZ$19.95
ISBN 978-0-141-32079-3
SNAKEHEAD Anthony Horowitz, Walker, 398 pages, paperback, $?? NZ$20
ISBN 978-1-4063-1228-7

“I’m so sick of you smart kids,” moans a thwarted villain, "Why can’t you just boost cars or steal stuff like normal kids?”

This is a great time to be a young male reader. Eoin Colfer and Anthony Horowitz are producing a torrent of lively, readable adventures with bright young heroes overcoming insuperable odds. If that sound rather like those hefty volumes of boys’ stories presented as prizes in the mid-twentieth century, that’s because they share colourful characters, well-described settings and rattling good plots.

Colfer’s newest creation, Airman, is Conor Broekhart who is literally born in the air (in a crashing dirigible) and then becomes an early pioneer of manned flight. As always, Colfer’s imaginative plots and detailed descriptions overwhelm the reader. No sooner has teenage Conor improvised a hang-gliding kite to rescue his beloved Princess Isabella from a fiery death on a blazing turret than he is cast into an underground dungeon as a traitor.

Escape from slave labour in the diamond mines of Grand Saltee seems impossible but Conor’s inventive genius, and his knowledge of things aerial enables him to make a desperate attempt for freedom. Will he regain his lost love? Will he be able to return to his family? Or will the evil Marshall Bonvilain, high commander of the Saltee Army destroy them all? Packed with Colfer’s trademark imagination and dry wit, this is a magnificently readable story.

Even more interesting villains make their appearance in the fifth of the Artemis Fowl series. The Lost Colony of the title is Hybar, the home of imps and demons. Artemis, the 14 year old master criminal and tactical genius, continues his efforts to keep the existence of the supernatural world a secret but he faces a double challenge. The deeply confused demons have hopes of reaching Earth using a copy of Lady Hetherington Smythe’s Hedgerow as their guidebook, but their existence is suspected by Minerva, a 12 year old computer genius who intends to capture a demon in order to win a Nobel Prize. Artemis finds himself strangely attracted when he meets Minerva. “Young, quick and arrogant,” he says, "You remind me of someone.”

The usual larcenous gnomes, felonious pixies and hi-tech centaurs make their appearance but the most attractive character in the story is No1, an embarrassingly inept imp, who soon discovers he has special powers. On Earth No 1 rapidly acquires a new vocabulary, including pink, cappuccino and candy-floss. The plot is complex and fast-placed with carefully detailed settings and several witty twists, including a revelation at the end which suggests the next Artemis Fowle adventure will be three times as good.

Anthony Horowitz’s popular boy spy, Alex Rider, was last seen in an orbiting space station. In Snakehead his relief at being rescued from his re-entry module is short-lived, as the Australian SIS applies some unsubtle leverage. Lured by the promise of learning more about the death of his parents, Alex finds himself posing as an Afghan refugee in Thailand, working with his godfather. Their operation against a people-smuggling ring becomes entangled with an MI6 operation in Bangkok and also attracts the attention of Major Yu, the deadliest member of the Scorpia world crime syndicate.

While coincidences abound, the action is dramatic and the settings – Asian slums, a container ship, an illicit organ-transplant hospital, and an ocean drilling rig – are convincingly detailed. Events sometimes become grim but Alex’s best weapon is always his initiative. Snakehead is a well-researched and dramatic addition to the Alex rider series.

Trevor Agnew

This review was first published in The Press, Christchurch NZ, on 29th March 2008.

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