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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

March 20, 2019: YA Series: Artemis Fowl

[In a development that I’m sure will shock precisely no one, my 13 (!!!) and about-to-be 12 year-old sons are both huge readers. They are fans of many authors and books, but for this week’s series I wanted to focus on, well, series—Young Adult series in particular—that they love. Please share your YA recommendations, series or otherwise, for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the fraught pleasures of rooting for an anti-hero, and how a popular series transcends them.
I’ve written a good bit in this space about the emphasis on anti-heroes in prominent recent TV shows (often through the now-deeply-fraught lens of House of Cards, but I suppose the ongoing revelations of Kevin Spacey’s history of disturbing and criminal behavior only adds one more layer to his character Frank Underwood as an anti-hero par excellence). As I’ve noted in most of those posts, I have deeply mixed feelings about this trend and such characters, or more exactly see them as straddling a very fine line: between a realistic depiction of human flaws on one side, flaws that the characters themselves recognize and are at least somewhat committed to working on, even if they (realistically) fail more often than they succeed (a la Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty on The Wire); and a celebration of their dastardly ways on the other side, a narrative that requires the characters to remain anti-heroic and indeed become more villainous over time (a la Brian Cranston’s Walter White on Breaking Bad). I get the appeal of the latter version, but to me it plays into some pretty ugly sides of human nature, and leaves me feeling more sleazy than entertained.
The character at the heart of one of the boys’ recent favorite YA series, Artemis Fowl, consistently and complicatedly straddles that line to be sure. Introduced by Irish author Eoin Colfer in 2001’s Artemis Fowl (the first of eight Fowl books in a series that concluded with 2012’s Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian), the teenage Fowl is the smartest kid in the world, a scion of extreme wealth, and seemingly devoid of any morals, making him more or less a James Bond villain in training. That first novel centers entirely on one such villainous plan of Fowl’s, and to be honest when I listened to the audiobook version with the boys (they got into those, read by the wonderful Nathaniel Parker, after finishing reading the series) I found myself rooting hard (if silently) against Fowl as a result (not the intended reader response in a book entitled Artemis Fowl, I venture to guess). While Fowl does gradually grow to care about various fellow characters (on some of whom more in a moment) over the course of the series, I’m not sure he ever stops straddling this fine line, and indeed would argue that many of the plotlines present his evil mastermind qualities as helpful and even necessary to defeating the books’ challenges and (other) villains).
Fortunately for readers of (and semi-unwilling listeners to) the Fowl books, Colfer also creates a wonderfully rich fantasy universe alongside the 21st century real world of his anti-hero protagonist. That world, known as the Lower Elements, is populated by all manner of fantastic creatures (known collectively as The People or fairies) who at one historical point lived on the Earth’s surface but have long since retreated to their underground setting. Colfer creates the world of the Lower Elements with remarkable depth and detail, and populates it with a number of wonderfully realized individual characters, most working for the Lower Elements Police Recon (LEPRecon, natch) force. Besides all their own merits and appeals, this community adds a vital aspect to the books: since they’re entirely separate from the human world, they both take Artemis Fowl down a significant peg and allow more resisting readers like this AmericanStudier to likewise engage with the series in a way that doesn’t require an embrace of or even an emphasis on the anti-hero title character. They are, dare I say it, a genius touch, if not at all an evil one.
Next series tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this post? Other YA lit series, books, or authors you’d highlight?

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