Children's & Middle Grade · Fantasy · Sci-Fi · YA

Artemis Fowl: A Study in Underestimation

Covers of all eight Artemis Fowl books in collage.

This year I finally finished the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer in its entirety. This is a series I loved when I was younger, but I didn’t stay caught up with new releases, so I ended up not reading the last three or four books. In the past two years I re-listened to all of them, (the audiobooks actually manage to be even better than the printed versions), and the whole series is fantastic, one of my all-time favorites. It’s eight books total, published between 2001 and 2012, a fantasy/sci-fi blend that hovers between middle grade and YA.

I could do a whole review of each book, how clever and witty and funny and awesome every book is, but I’ll just say it and leave it at that. Careful readers and listeners will know that today, January 9, is Artemis’ birthday, and I don’t want to let the occasion pass without a tribute. What really jumped out at me this time through is the theme of underestimation. The most powerful characters tend to be underestimated at first, especially our heroes, and it doesn’t work out well for the people doing the underestimating. It’s one of the things that makes the series so glorious and subversively empowering. Spoilers below.

The titular main character, Artemis Fowl, is only twelve years old in the first book, but he’s already a supergenius, incredibly wealthy, and an international criminal. Thinking he’s only a child keeps people from realizing how smart he is at first glance, but more importantly, they don’t realize how far he’ll go to get what he wants. On the other side is Holly Short, the first female captain in the Lower Elements Police Recon (LEPRecon) organization, with all the pressure that status brings. She has to be better than all other other fairies in order to be treated equally. This is most prominent in the early books, because she’s basically nuts and will do whatever crazy thing she feels is right in a given situation.

Artemis Fowl fanart -- tan female elf with pointed ears and short brown hair, pale boy with dark hair and suit, both with mismatched blue and brown eyes

Mulch Diggums, representing a third point of view, is a country-accented lower-class criminal dwarf who shows up when least expected, and always has some new bodily function that’ll magically get everyone out of a scrape. Finally, we have recurring villain Opal Koboi. I was kind of tired of her by the end, to be honest, but I have to admit she functions well with the others — another supergenius, another woman, another criminal, and underestimated in the same ways. No one thinks she’d do the things she does until it’s too late. At one point she’s even in a coma and the LEP thinks that’ll keep her from causing trouble, but of course it doesn’t.

The main characters become increasingly intertwined over the course of the series, especially Artemis and Holly as Artemis grows up, but as he gets older and Holly gets more established, the underestimation theme starts showing up in new places. Books 5 and 7 are the huge ones. In The Lost Colony (#5) there’s Imp No. 1, who still hasn’t transformed into a demon at the age of 14, and is a bullied intellectual in a culture with no concept of the word “intellectual” at all. He discovers that he’s actually an insanely powerful warlock. In the same book Artemis drastically underestimates the girl who’s the mastermind on the opposing side, Holly mentions how she was always chosen to play the hostage or victim in academy roleplays, and we meet Commander Vinyaya, the woman who blazed the trail for Holly and was her old mentor. It’s my favorite book in the series and I was whooping at the end.

In The Atlantis Complex (#7) we meet the villain Turnball Root, whom one kind of assumes is either a sub-villain, basic criminal, or perhaps another slightly silly villain like those in other installments. But there’s a turn halfway through, when you realize he’s THE villain and he’s a terrifying one, who uses magic to compel love and obedience, who has remarkable magical skill — and at this point in the series, you know what’s remarkable. He’s made all the more creepy by his years-long campaign to make the prison warden etc. think he’s an aging criminal who poses no threat.

The final book brings all the character arcs together. Opal, at higher power levels than ever, is poised to destroy everything and everyone, but she underestimates how far Artemis has come, because she has no concept of selflessness but Artemis finally does. The main plot isn’t one of my favorites, to be honest, but the ending is a blaze of glory in every way. The series is definitely about Artemis growing up, learning right and wrong and how to use his powers to help. But within that overall theme, there’s so much to hear about the power we can have if we totally commit. Couched, of course, in one of the funniest and most creative sci-fi/fantasy series ever. Happy birthday, Artemis, I love you!

Artemis Fowl fanart - pale boy with black hair, mismatched eyes, black suit, and party hat, saying "Kill them Butler, kill them all." (deactivated account)

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