Horror, humour and humanity

1st July 2005 at 01:00
David Buckley selects edge-of-the-seat fantasy

Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception By Eoin Colfer Puffin pound;12.99 Lord Loss By Darren Shan HarperCollins pound;12.99

Vampirates By Justin Somper Simon Schuster pound;5.99

The Karazan Quartet: The Serpents of Arakesh By VM Jones Puffin pound;4.99

Would-be writers are often told to write about what they know, but life at the bus-stops of adulthood can make us forget that we also know secret friends from childhood who can drive a powerful narrative.

In Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception, Eoin Colfer boils up a plot in which evil pixie Opal Koboi schemes for world domination, pursued by maverick fairy policewoman Holly Short and human boy genius Artemis Fowl. These two combine, like Emma Peel and John Steed in The Avengers, with the fairy's gift for violent response - a perfect complement to dapper Artemis, who likes suits and despises hoodies.

Colfer's gift for characterisation also contrasts fairies who have never met a damp acorn cup in their lives with Mulch Diggums, a dwarf who tunnels by swallowing earth and farting it out of his backside. This is the fourth book featuring Eoin Colfer's young criminal mastermind and hi-tech expert.

Artemis sales in the millions suggest young readers love sorting out this sort of thing, with its spirals of technical language and dynamic fierce little people, and once you've remembered the team colours, it's a wickedly entertaining mix of technology and wit which makes even an exploding bio-bomb a cruelly fun event: "Ants and spiders hopped once, then their tiny hearts froze."

A more sinister turn of events powers Darren Shan's Lord Loss, when disturbed teenager Grubitsch returns home to find his Dad hanging upside down minus a head, his sister split in two, and a crocodile crossed with a dog eating his mother. And in the first chapter they'd been such a close, chess-loving family.

Despite moments of grotesque horror, much of the story focuses on the orphaned Grub's relationship with the motorbike-riding uncle who takes him in. Uncle Dervish is wise and eccentric, skilled in magic and the occult.

It would be such a shame if he turned out to be a werewolf, as Grubitsch fears, and Shan's skill is to make you care. The plot twists and turns like a sharp descent down a dark flume towards a showdown with Lord Loss, a demon from another realm who feeds on human sorrow. He will cure the family's werewolf tendencies if defeated at chess. But the fantasy is always rooted in the reality of life in a comfortable old mansion with a fascinating uncle. The teenager's fear that he, too, may have inherited the werewolf gene stands for any teenager's wonderings about who they are and where they are from.

Family love also lies at the heart of Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean, which features another cast of caring adults who don't go to work in suits.

Connor and Grace Tempest's father is a lighthouse-keeper, a fine role-model but hopeless with money. Left penniless after his death, the twins attempt escape in a boat, only to be parted in the global storms of 2505.

Connor is picked up by a pirate ship, captained by the flamboyant Molucco Wrathe, who is so not into suits that he wears a snake in his hair, and Grace is rescued by a ship of vampires whose captain does not even wear a face. The novel switches from ship to ship as the twins try to find each other. The comedy of Connor's attempts to be a pirate is balanced by the goose-pimples of Grace's exploration of the vampire ship, and her realisation that her young guardian, Lorcan Furey, is already dead. In this first novel of a projected sequence, Justin Somper manages a compelling narrative which presents the joy of being alive alongside the emptiness of death.

In The Serpents of Arakesh, orphan Adam Equinox wins a competition run by computer game genius Quentin Quested, who has created such a complex program that the world he has created evolves independently of its creator.

Adam and four other keyboard-tapping youngsters enter the quasi-medieval and magical world of Arakesh, seeking a healing potion which will cure Quested's daughter of cancer. This page-turner pumps along because Adam and Quested are such sympathetic characters. Adam is barely literate, bullied by the vindictive matron who supposedly cares for him; Quested an unworldly dreamer who loves his daughter. Absorbing and readable.

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