Com­pelling, in­ven­tive and in­fin­itely read­able

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - Becky Long


By Eoin Colfer

EJo Fletcher Books, 384pp, £16.99

oin Colfer is renowned for his chil­dren’s fan­tasy ti­tles, not least the Artemis Fowl series which is shortly to have its cin­e­matic de­but in an adap­ta­tion di­rected by Kenneth Bran­nagh. To date over half of his books for chil­dren have reached the New York Times best­seller list. In short, he knows what he’s do­ing when it comes to fan­tasy.

So Colfer’s move into the realm of adult fan­tasy lit­er­a­ture was al­ways go­ing to be highly an­tic­i­pated. And it’s a move into a genre that is al­ready pop­u­lated by house­hold names such as George RR Martin, Robin Hobb, Brandon San­der­son and Neil Gaiman, to list but a few.

In­deed, the com­par­isons to Neil Gaiman are al­most in­evitable for Colfer. He writes with a sim­i­lar warmth and ir­rev­er­ence, and shares Gaiman’s fas­ci­na­tion with the quirky hu­man side of fan­tasy. The ques­tion then seems to be, is there space for Colfer’s spe­cific brand of Ir­ish wit within this al­ready crowded space?

And the an­swer is yes. But that’s not ex­actly what we’re get­ting with High­fire. Pri­mar­ily be­cause it’s set in a swamp in Louisiana in south­ern United States. And while this gives Colfer a whole new palate of lin­guis­tic flair and col­lo­qui­alisms to play with, it also, strangely, lim­its his tra­di­tion­ally ex­pan­sive sto­ry­telling style.

Let’s set the scene. Once upon a time – which seems like the most ap­pro­pri­ate fairy tale cliche – Vern the dragon wasn’t Vern at all. He was Wyvern, Lord High­fire of High­fire Eyrie, rul­ing at the height of a Dragon Age that seems to have faded from the col­lec­tive me­mory of the mod­ern-day hu­mans he now finds him­self liv­ing in the midst of.

Vern spends most of his time hid­ing in the back­wa­ters of a Louisiana swamp try­ing not re­veal his ex­is­tence to boat­loads of snap-happy tourists. And be­cause Vern is the last of his kind – so far as he knows – his con­tin­ued ex­is­tence seems like a rel­a­tively im­por­tant thing to take care of.

But what Vern can’t, and never could, ac­count for are hu­mans. When teenager Squib Moreau gets on the wrong side of the lo­cal so­cio­pathic crooked cop Re­gence Hooke, Vern gets drawn into a vor­tex of events the likes of which he hasn’t got­ten caught up in since that in­ci­dent with the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion.

It’s in­cred­i­bly hard to write an orig­i­nal fan­tasy novel. And talk­ing dragons are noth­ing new. But Colfer has man­aged to pro­duce some­thing fresh and in­fin­itely read­able here.

Vern in par­tic­u­lar is an in­cen­di­ary joy; a can­tan­ker­ous, lonely and ex­is­ten­tially chal­lenged dragon with a prover­bial heart of gold – or fire. He re­sides hap­pily at the core of a novel that never quite reaches its po­ten­tial but has a hell of a lot of fun try­ing.

Less sat­is­fy­ing than Colfer’s finely ob­served char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions is his in­sis­tence on con­nect­ing the nar­ra­tive to re­cent pop cul­ture. Ref­er­ences to Net­flix and Grand Theft Auto – not to men­tion a par­tic­u­larly jar­ring one to Cold­play, of all things – sit un­easily within the gen­eral tone and ban­ter of the novel’s Louisiana set­ting, and mean that High­fire will not only age badly but rapidly.

The best fan­tasy el­e­vates it­self above the stan­dard trap­pings of the genre and makes a state­ment about society. Vern per­forms that clas­sic func­tion; a dragon with just enough re­move from and aware­ness of the hu­man race to make qual­i­fied state­ments on how ut­terly hor­rific we are to each other.

Black Beauty proved that de­fa­mil­iari­sa­tion is even more ef­fec­tive when you go one species over for the run­ning com­men­tary on hu­man­ity; Colfer’s sar­don­ically in­sight­ful dragon takes it to a whole other level.

Colfer’s style is com­pelling, his lan­guage in­ven­tive, and, most im­por­tantly, his ideas are en­ter­tain­ing. I just want more. There’s no big­ger pic­ture here, and you can feel the lack. Vern and Squib aren’t try­ing to save the world, they’re just try­ing to save them­selves. And it shows. This is a small story. And it feels like it should have been big­ger.

High­fire is de­li­ciously funny at times. In a sea of for­get­table mod­ern fan­tasy ti­tles, it of­fers mo­ments of gen­uine orig­i­nal­ity.

It’s vi­o­lent, but not quite vi­o­lent enough. It’s witty but it’s not as ra­zor sharp as some of Colfer’s best work. It’s am­bi­tious but it could do bet­ter.

So, if this is the be­gin­ning of a series readers are en­ti­tled to feel intrigued. This reader, for one, wouldn’t mind see­ing what Squib and Vern get up to in the fu­ture.


Eoin Colfer: a whole new palate of lin­guis­tic flair.

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