Criminal genius Artemis Fowl proves yet again that his magical powers are more than a match for a certain boy wizard. But are you up to speed, asks Stuart Kelly
ARTEMIS FOWL AND THE TIME PARADOX
WHY Harry Potter became a Phenomenon while Artemis Fowl only remains a Huge Sensation is a conundrum for future ages to ponder. Eoin Colfer's series of novels has surface similarities to the boy wizard's adventures – a world where magic and supernatural beings are real but secret, written in a style that moves between the sombre and the silly – but whereas Harry Potter is conservative and derivative, Artemis Fowl is anarchic and inventive.
The sixth novel, Artemis Fowl And The Time Paradox, is an unadulterated joy. I'd love to be able to say that even if you haven't read the first five, you should just plunge in; but in fact a knowledge of the story so far is pretty much essential. And if you haven't already read the first five, you're really missing out anyway.
So, a quick recap for the uninitiated. Book one – memorably described by Colfer as "Die Hard with Fairies" – introduced Artemis, a 13-year-old prodigy and criminal genius, who discovers the existence of a subterranean civilisation called "The People", consisting of elves, goblins, dwarves and suchlike. He held Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance (LEPrecon) to ransom, and extricated himself from a protracted magical siege.
The first book sketched most of the supporting cast: Artemis's bodyguard Butler; Holly's boss, Julius Root; the tech-support centaur, Foaly, and the flatulent kleptomaniac dwarf, Mulch Diggums. Future books saw Artemis pitted against a goblin insurrection masterminded by an insane, power-mad pixie, Opal Koboi, who later tried to start a war between humanity and the People; in trouble for selling a fairy-enhanced super computer to the Mafia and battling a lost race of demons in Limbo. Over the series, Fowl's arrogance and amorality have become somewhat tempered, and, as he matures, his relationship with the elfin Holly has become more complicated.
The Time Paradox takes place just after the end of The Lost Colony, with Artemis back from Limbo, but three years later than expected. He has two new siblings – Beckett and Myles, a nice nod to the adult reader with an interest in Irish comic writing – and his mother is seriously ill. When she's diagnosed with Spelltropy, a plague that once nearly exterminated The People, Artemis's past comes back to haunt him. The only known cure involves a Madagascan silky sifaka lemur, a species which the younger Artemis rendered extinct. With the help of demon No1 and Holly, Artemis has to travel back in time to stop his younger self.
Colfer doesn't handle time-travel, he revels in it. Indeed, it makes you realise how pedestrian the use of time-travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban actually was. There's a plethora of paradoxes here ("If I had done nothing then nothing would have needed to be done") and a great re-run of the Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey Predestination Paradox (where, at any impasse in the past, you just decide to remember to send the solution back to yourself from the future).
The format also allows Colfer to chart the changes in the characters. Younger Artemis is far more sarcastic, malevolent and unhappy; Diggums is back to being a criminal; and there's a genuinely touching moment when Holly gets to speak with Julius again, since he died in the fourth book without them saying goodbye.
The plot in the past is as harum-scarum as ever, with Younger Artemis having sold the lemur to a truly vile Colfer caricature, Dr Damon Kronski, president of a group called the Extinctionists, who out-do each other in acts of animal genocide. But Kronski is a cat's-paw for someone else, and it's not too huge a spoiler to say that an old enemy makes a surprising comeback, or first appearance if you look at it another way. The time travel ties some very neat and ingenious bows and sets up a loose end as the thrilling premise for the seventh book. There's a "game changer" at the end, and every prospect that book seven will be fantastic, even by Colfer's exceptional standards.
The humour is wide as well as sharp: there's something considerably larger than a dwarf breaking wind in chapter two, some slapstick in the zoo and a lot of verbal fun with the infant demon No1's pedantry. "We've got to fly," says Holly. "And that's not just a figure of speech," butts in No1. "We actually have to fly." Perhaps what distinguishes Colfer most from JK Rowling is that he sides with the rule-breakers, the needlessly naughty and the downright rude: with the children, in essence.
• Eoin Colfer, EIBF, August 9, 11.30 am