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Thursday, July 14, 2005

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Opal Deception," "Solomon Snow and the Stolen Jewel"


"The Opal Deception," Eoin Colfer, Puffin Books; 2005; 344 pp.

There's only one person on the planet who can have had more fun than I did reading "The Opal Deception" -- the guy who wrote it.

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Eoin Colfer is back to tell us yet another tall tale about 14-year-old criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl -- and he's having a whale of a time while he's doing it. It shows. You can almost hear him chuckling away as he plunges his reader back underground into Haven City, secret abode of the Fairy People, where a crisis is about to unfold. In fact, this time something so catastrophic is threatening the People that they need the services of none other than the one human they're terrified of more than any other: Artemis Fowl.

The plot moves faster than a shot from Captain Holly Short's Neutrino 3000 pistol. And speaking of the feisty fairy who was kidnapped by Artemis in Colfer's first book, she's about to become the first woman major in the Lower Elements Police (LEP). Colfer does well in setting up a sweet little sense of calm before his novel blasts off like an LEP shuttle in a magma chute.

Evil pixie Opal Koboi (who made plenty of trouble for Fowl and Short in the last book) is pretending to be comatose at a clinic in Haven City. By Page 30, she's escaped from the clinic and is gunning for revenge. Her plan: to administer a painful death to Artemis and Holly; to destroy the Fairy People; and then to rule the world. Of course. It has to be world domination; no lesser aspiration would be fitting for Colfer's villain.

Soon, Holly is on the run from the LEP who suspect her of going bad, and from Koboi, who'd like nothing more than to kill her. She must rescue Artemis from an enemy he doesn't remember (thanks to a "mind-wipe" in the last book); and then save Haven City from being vaporized.

This is so deliciously insane, it's hilarious. Together, Holly and Artemis battle trolls in mating season; evade "bio-bombs" that only destroy living organisms; and dodge heat-seeking missiles. There's enough high-tech gadgetry here to shame the CIA: camouflage suits that turn the color of their surroundings; subcutaneous "seeker-sleepers" for tracking fugitive prisoners; and police helmets that relay diagnostic information about the wearer back to headquarters.

The old favorites are back: Artemis' bodyguard Butler, LEP Commander Julius Root and centaur Foley. Back, too, is gold-greedy dwarf Mulch Diggums and, as always, his rear end comes to the rescue and his flatulence saves the world. The only trouble is that Colfer uses him as a convenient device to get out of the most impossible of situations. All of a sudden, we're told about new dwarf talents: spit that is luminous; being able to survive decompression sickness; and pores that transform into suction cups.

This is all very imaginative of Colfer, but it comes as an afterthought -- how come he didn't tell us all this about Mulch in the earlier books? It's like reading about Spiderman and being told, too late, that not only does Spidey weave webs, he also flies!

That said, the other characters are given a chance to evolve more naturally, as they should. Now I don't want to see Fowl turning fair here -- but he shows signs of making, well, a career switch. By the end of this book, Holly, too, is reassessing her own life. This means that readers can look forward to a new sort of partnership between the two in the books to come.

At the end, the Louvre in Paris receives a note that says "More to follow" (I won't explain the context of this note for fear of spoiling the ending). But it's more like a veiled promise from Eoin Colfer -- that's not the last the Fairy People have heard from Artemis Fowl. How lucky for us.

For children 10-14 years. Available at online book stores.

"Solomon Snow and the Stolen Jewel," Kaye Umansky, Puffin; 2005; 211 pp.

Solomon Snow -- how unlike Artemis Fowl he is! He's barely a hero, hardly ever in the thick of the action and has a need to affirm whether he's intelligent or not by asking his friend, Prudence Pridy, "Do you think I've got brains?"

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Ah! Prudence! You would remember the poacher's daughter whose impossibly large nose is always stuck in a book if you had read Umansky's first book "The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow."

But if you're a newcomer, let's just say Prudence is Snow's friend (and Prudence doesn't have too many friends because she's always rubbing people the wrong way).

And then there's Rosabella, the pretty and incredibly spoilt "Infant Prodigy" from the circus who looks more innocent than she really is and Mr. Skippy, Rosabella's rather dull rabbit sidekick.

So how do these unremarkable characters get caught up in a heist to steal the world's largest ruby? It's a set-up courtesy of author Umansky, and it's hugely funny watching our star quartet bumble into a sub-plot involving a one-eyed dwarf called Shorty; a jewel expert called Dr. Calamari; and his hulk of a sidekick, appropriately named Gross.

Calamari dispatches Gross to hire a dwarf to steal the ruby. That dwarf turns out to be Shorty, who is filling in a vacancy for a clown at the circus, and Shorty picks a bone with Rosabella, only to discover that the consequences of such a thing can be rather woeful. Meanwhile, Prudence's father has been jailed for poaching and Snow and Prudence are off to bribe the jailer and bring Mr. Pridy back home. We know they're all going to meet -- and what joy it is to watch it happen!

There are no dark twists of plot in this hilarious Victorian spoof -- nor are there any dark villains. With mock-solemnity, the author builds up Dr. Calamari as an evil mastermind with a dastardly scheme. For sure, he has all the props: the dark castle with 162 stairs; the aforementioned hulking sidekick; and a convenient little diary to make daily entries in. But we all know Calamari is, as Prudence puts it "ridiculous."

Umansky makes an art of exaggeration. She keeps you riveted by an adventure that's not really an adventure with villains that aren't really villains and heroes that aren't really heroes. "I've never seen anything so overdone," says Prudence. Neither have we -- and that's why we love it.



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