Children's books

11th May 2001 at 01:00
DEATHSCENT. By Robin Jarvis. Collins Children's Books pound;12.99. ARTEMIS FOWL. By Eoin Colfer. Viking pound;12.99.

Deathscent - one noun where two would do - is set in the 187th year of the reign of Elizabeth Tudor. The picture on the jacket suggests the likely appearance of Elizabeth on entering her third century, but is in fact an extra-terrestrial in Elizabethan garb, and Tudor England is no precious stone set in a silver sea, but 93 linked asteroids floating somewhere in deep space.

The premise is ingenious. At the beginning, two ambiguous persons intervene as the original Queen Bess is on the verge of death from smallpox. They capture her essence, leaving her cured, and history proceeds as we know it. But they have captured some other essences too - up on the asteroids, Dr John Dee and Sir Francis Walsingham are still seeing Catholics under the bed. England, now Englandia, is not alone in space; and Europe, particularly Spain, is up there.

The reasons for this are divulged at the end, but only partially - a series is to follow. The Englandians pursue their 16th-century lives, never comprehending or questioning the technology that sustains them until a multi-nostrilled alien, Brindle, crash-lands in their geodesic dome. They have no livestock, only mechanical animals devised to cultivate a kind of Quorn that people accept as meat. Even the local wild boar is manufactured. Clashes between these beasts are like protracted episodes of Robot Wars. Indeed, everything is protracted, expounded at great length with the kind of circumlocution unseen since the works of Henry James. Picking out the extraneous adjectives is like boning a kipper - not that this isn't a tasty kipper.

Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl has been so talked up by its publisher as a marketing concept that it is a surprise to find a book with covers that you an open and read. I don't feel that they have done this unconventional and funny writer much of a service by hyping his work as something it is not. Lacking the laugh-out-loud comedy of Benny and Omar, or the batty inventiveness of The Wish List, Artemis Fowl is actually rather glum and a deal less hard-boiled than we have been led to believe. Artemis himself, who, to be sure, shares mother-love and puritanical prissiness with several celebrated gangsters, appears infrequently, and seems to be less a criminal mastermind than a neglected kid with more computers than is good for him. His infamies are all to come in future books, and this one retrospectively documents his first great crime.

Artemis has neither the inclination nor the physique to go digging at the foot of the rainbow for fairy gold. Instead, he kidnaps a leprechaun and issues a ransom demand. The origins of the word leprechaun are a tooth-aching pun (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance - LEP Recon) and the cue for an expose of the true world of Faerie: high-tech hardware, stealth technology, sophisticated communication systems and a neutron bomb. At around a metre tall, these little-ish people maintain invisibility by high-speed oscillation. Their wings are drawn from a wing pool (human birds are the BMWs, dragonflies evidently Skodas).

The inventiveness is here, and humour, tension, a bit of blood and guts, but on a page-by-page basis. In a medium-length novel there are so many characters, so much to be explained, that the narrative as a whole never picks up speed. Publishers used to employ semi-mythical creatures called editors who could bone the kipper on the reader's behalf. Some still do, but somehow one feels that people stopped believing in them and so they just faded away, like Tinkerbell, until their little lights went out.


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