So, we all know I love Artemis Fowl, and I love Airman even more. Eoin Colfer is a great writer, and his books seem to lend themselves well to audiobooks, so I keep on listening. That’s how I ended up with The Wish List, which is far from being one of his well-known titles. It’s not the top of his game, but it still has some interesting content. Here’s the description:
Meg Finn has led a miserable life. First, her mum died, saddling her with a useless, nasty stepfather. Then, angry and alone, Meg found herself committing acts of petty crime with dim-witted hood Belch Brennan. Finally, just as she was about to go straight to honor her sainted mum’s memory, Belch went and got them both killed as they attempted to rob crabby old Lowrie McCall. And if that wasn’t bad enough, now St. Peter and Beelzebub can’t decide which way Meg is supposed to go. She is one in a million: a soul perfectly balanced between good and evil. Now Meg’s got to go back and somehow tip the scales UP–the further, the better! To earn her wings, Meg’s been assigned to help the last person she tried to hurt (Lowrie McCall) who has a wish list of wrong choices that he wants to make right. But Beelzebub can’t stand the thought of a bad soul going good. So he sends back the soul of powerfully stupid Belch, (who went straight down without stopping) to muck things up for Meg and Lowrie. But Meg’s got smarts on her side and more than just a few tricks up her insubstantial sleeve…
If you like Artemis Fowl, the tone here is pretty similar. There’s a hint of the children’s-book — ploys that shouldn’t be convincing work just fine — but some heavier stuff too and overall more realism like a YA novel. There’s the clever mix of fantasy and scifi, with a really fun vision of the afterlife that’s surprisingly coherent. The audiobook narration by James Wilby is good and gave it an extra helping of Irish atmosphere, which is already strong in the writing. The book as a whole doesn’t hold up as well as Colfer’s top-tier work though, it reads like a side project that didn’t get his full attention, where he was just playing around with some ideas he had.
The best themes in the book are the character dynamics between Lowrie and Meg, an elderly man close to the end of his life and a rebellious 14-year-old girl who’s already dead. The usual friction, in which Lowrie would tell Meg she’s got her whole life ahead of her and Meg would resent an elderly person who doesn’t understand, gets muddled and inverted. They’re rounded people and they make sense, and their bickering becomes a lot of fun because it’s so authentic to their characters. Each item on Lowrie’s wish list rings true and adds to our understanding of him and his life, even when they sound odd or petty at first.
Some plot points rubbed me the wrong way though, like a slightly dubcon kiss (dubious consent) being an explosion of “pure good” energy, or — minor spoiler — Meg’s redemption coming in the form of generosity to her abusive stepfather. Maybe the generosity counts as “good” no matter who you give it to, but I don’t like the implications. Is allowing more people to be hurt in the future “good”? No. Also there’s some potential racism in the treatment of the Asian villain? That may just be poor James Wilby not being able to do an authentic accent, because otherwise I can’t put my finger on it.
Stuff like that kept me from being entirely comfortable with the book, on top of the “just playing around” feeling of the prose. It still has the rhythm of an Eoin Colfer book though, with some very interesting themes, so I have mixed feelings and can’t really recommend or unrecommend it. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads. If you read or listen to it, let me know where you land!
CN: Domestic abuse, bullying.