The un-Potter at the rainbow's end

The race is on. Like the frantic treasure seekers in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," children's publishers are scouring the slush pile, riffling through literary agents' Rolodexes, and racing through bookshelves overseas in search of their golden ticket - the next "Harry Potter."

Talk Miramax Books is so sure of its first foray into young adult books that it's printing 100,000 copies, has picked up the movie rights, and has bestowed a reported $200,000 on Irish author and schoolteacher Eoin Colfer. The publisher is openly comparing Colfer's seventh novel to the boy wonder. Thus, fans convinced "Harry Potter" is the best fantasy since Lucy stepped into the wardrobe, and those who maintain that the whole phenomenon is vastly overrated, will be gunning for "Artemis Fowl" when it comes out next month.

Fortunately, the young criminal mastermind probably wouldn't have it any other way. After the disappearance of his father and the emotional collapse of his mother, the 12-year-old has taken it upon himself to restore his family's glorious name. To do so, he plans to hold a fairy ransom - despite the fact that most people are sure that fairies, um, don't exist.

As Artemis would be the first to point out, he's rarely wrong. Not only are goblins, dwarves, et al, real, but they live in quite modern style under the earth - hidden away from humans, but also locked away from moonlight and night air.

The only ones who get to visit the surface - aside from the occasional gnome tourist or elf posing as a EuroDisney employee - are the leprechauns.

But these aren't the cute, rainbow-hopping, pot-o'-gold hoarding fellows of legend. They are, in fact, an elite police force, designed to maintain order among fairy folk. And "while it was true that LEP had a ransom fund, because of its officers' high-risk occupation, no human had ever taken a chunk out of it yet. This didn't stop the Irish population in general from skulking around rainbows, hoping to win the supernatural lottery."

That's one of many ways that Colfer tweaks fairy tales - replacing the glitter and magic with a fast-paced, urban society.

Take for example, the question of fashion: "LEPrecon uniforms were stylish these days. Not like that top-o'-the-morning costume the force had to wear back in the old days. Buckled shoes and knickerbockers! Honestly."

One of the most engaging characters is a satyr who's a computer whiz. The goblins and dwarves are involved in gang warfare; the LEPrecon lieutenant threatens his subordinates with traffic detail; and when one elf learns there may be trouble on the surface, his reaction is to whip out his cellphone. "Bark? Yes. This is Nimbus. I want you to sell all my shares in the shuttle port. Yes, all of them. I have a hunch the price is about to take a severe dive."

After a disappointing first chapter, the action kicks into high gear and never stops. Aside from a dwarf whose scatological antics get rather old, and a tendency to talk directly to the reader that's sporadically annoying, Colfer's sly humor and hardboiled cop dialogue make for a rollicking read.

It also marks a departure from much of fantasy (including Harry Potter), which carefully excises all references to computers, cellphones, and TVs, creating an atmosphere of timelessness.

In fact, apart from having books named after them, the two boys couldn't be more different. Harry's a wizard; Artemis has to rely on gadgets and his trusted manservant, Butler. Harry's inherently good; Artemis dreams of restoring his family's criminal empire (although somebody who sets fire to a whaling ship can't be all bad). Though Artemis's stated desire is to be "evil but highly intelligent," Colfer provides an occasional peek at the lonely boy within.

And the question of whether Artemis is as bad as he'd like to be ultimately provides a more compelling reason to keep turning pages than whether he'll succeed in becoming the first human to make off with a pile of fairy loot.

Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor staff.

Artemis Fowl

By Eoin Colfer Talk Miramax Books 208 pp., $16.95

Ages 12 and up

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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