I’ve been a fan of Eoin Colfer for years. I’ve got all the Artemis Fowl books, I’ve read pretty much everything else he wrote before 2012, and I’d say I’m a fan. He’s got wonderfully creative ideas and awesome concepts. I’ve been a bit behind, recently, and hadn’t read this one of his books until the last few days, though I did come across it in an airport last year.
I’ve said I don’t like writing negative reviews, but this is the first book I’ve read for weeks and I thought I might as well review it. So I’ll say straight off that this book severely disappointed me.
Maybe my expectations were unrealistic. Like a lot of the reviewers I saw on Goodreads, I came to this as a fan of Colfer’s other work, so I was expecting something on a level with Artemis Fowl. A brief glance at the blurb told me there was time-travel and a female protagonist, so I was interested enough to borrow it from the library.
If I’d had lower expectations, I might have enjoyed it more, but I can’t tell.
The concept was awesome: an underage FBI agent in disgrace is sent to London to participate in a secret operation involving time travel. When things go wrong, she ends up babysitting a kid from Victorian London … before being dragged back there herself. Hijinks ensue, with a Native American female protagonist having an opportunity to shine.
But the execution was lacklustre.
Something about the writing style was off, and it took me a long time to pin down exactly what it was. Even now, I’m not quite sure. The way contractions were used in dialogue sounded unnatural — there were too few of them, and when they were there, they were at weird points in the sentence. Most of the ‘Londoners’ ended up sounding Northern in my head simply from their word choices, which is probably just how my brain works, but they didn’t fit my mental image of Cockney orphans at all.
I didn’t even understand half of the colloquial language, and the way Chevie (the protagonist) spoke generally seemed weird. These problems with dialogue were also visible in narration, though to a lesser extent, and this gave it a somewhat clunky feel. Here and there I noticed errors, like ‘dying’ in place of ‘dyeing’, and one point when I wasn’t sure if it was deliberately ‘boor’ instead of ‘bore’, as the latter seemed more appropriate in context.
To some extent, Colfer’s style has always vaguely irritated me, particularly in the earlier Artemis Fowl books — it seemed to settle down a bit later on, and the concept and characters could override those failings. He has a way of making his dialogue seem unnaturally melodramatic, and although he occasionally mocks this in dialogue tags and the like, after a while it gets grating. There’s a bizarre combination of childishly simplistic language and more sophisticated humour that doesn’t quite work.
In fact, the humour was one of the things that threw this book off. I love sarcasm, I love one-liners, and I love when tense situations get diffused by a joke from someone. However, I couldn’t tell whether this book was supposed to be tense or funny. When it seemed tense, misjudged humour threw off the pacing and made the situation ludicrous instead. When it seemed funny, the jokes often fell flat. As a result, I got to the end of the book without knowing whether I was supposed to be entertained by the villain or scared of him.
That isn’t to say it was wholly worthless as a book. The awesome concept managed to carry it through somewhat, and the juxtaposition of a modern protagonist in historical surroundings allowed for some cultural comparisons and some sly retrospective comments. There were some scenes that were well-paced and energetic. But they were in the minority, which was a huge shame.
After having finished it, I’m still not 100% sure how things were resolved. I mean, I get the general gist of the plot, and thinking over it I can just about work out where my fast reading caused me to miss crucial lines, but on the whole the plot seemed somewhat confused, too.
In compliance with my Reviewing Policy, I’m going to have to give this book two stars, which I never thought would happen with an author I’ve previously enjoyed and been excited by.
It’s not without its merits, because the general premise — and even the characters — was pretty interesting. But the plot needed work, and the characters themselves seemed like shallow imitations of their potential. It felt like it needed some extensive editing to actually make it work, and I’m saddened by that.