A Case of Fowl Play A less magical book tries to horn in on Harry Potter

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Publishing abhors a vacuum, and 2001 has been unfolding around a doozy of emptiness. Here is a vast new worldwide audience of readers galvanized by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, and no new Harry Potter installment will appear this year to slake the pent-up cravings of the boy wizard's devotees. Millions of people bereft! What's worse, many more millions of dollars unspent at bookstores!

That background explains why the publishing world has whipped itself into a fine froth of hype and hoopla over a rather creepy 12-year-old fictional hero named, as is the novel he stars in, Artemis Fowl. British rights to the book, written by Irish schoolteacher and children's writer Eoin (pronounced Owen) Colfer, 35, were purchased last year by Penguin/Puffin. Then Talk Miramax Books snapped up U.S. rights, and Miramax Films optioned the book for a film. At that point, publishers all over the planet began bidding on Artemis Fowl, which has now been sold in 18 countries. In the end, advances reportedly totaled more than $1.5 million.

So, is Artemis Fowl the new, or at least the interregnum, Harry Potter? Talk Miramax Books, which enlisted the aid of its fellow Disney subsidiary Hyperion Books for Children to help publish and market the new contender in the U.S., insists that its strenuous efforts on behalf of Artemis Fowl have little to do, at least intentionally, with the Harry Potter phenomenon. "It's not the next Harry Potter," says Talk Miramax editor in chief Jonathan Burnham. "But the book trade has said to us, ŒWell, this is great, because this year there's no new Harry Potter.' So the audience that there is for Harry Potter is hungry for adventurous, daring stories that are kind of challenging and exciting. And this is clearly what Artemis is doing."

What Artemis Fowl (Viking; 280 pages) is doing seems, unfortunately for all the big money and expectations clustered around its debut, pretty much beyond the pale of fictional empathy or the sort of reader involvement that has made Harry Potter so beloved. For Artemis is repellent in almost every regard. This mastermind is the know-it-all scion of a criminal and fabulously rich Irish family, lately fallen on hard times after the mysterious disappearance of Artemis' father. So the son and his burly henchman Butler embark on a quest to buff up his inheritance by stealing gold from the fairies, who live beneath the earth, having been driven there by the proliferation of humans, or "Mud People."

Artemis succeeds in obtaining the Book, a compendium of fairy rules and regulations, and then breaks its arcane coded hieroglyphs with the aid of his trusty Apple PowerBook. Next, he captures a real live fairy: Holly Short, a captain in the LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police reconnaissance) detail. The fairy denizens gird to rescue one of their own, and guess who wins.

Parents who might be worried about their children's reading a book glorifying extortion don't know the half of what's wrong with Artemis Fowl. The writing is abysmal: "Keep calm, he derided himself." Or, "If one of his own men had pulled a stunt like this, he'd have their stripes for it." Clichés fester on nearly every page: "hollow threat" on 87, "no mean feat" on 88. Dialogue is rarely "said"; it is "whined," "quipped" or "grunted" ad, literally, nauseam. Supposedly admirable characters "smirk."

Colfer, understandably unsettled by the money and attention that have recently landed on him, says he hadn't read a Harry Potter book until he finished writing Artemis Fowl, and was relieved to discover that "they're totally different books. I think the Harry Potter books are timeless books. In a way, they're even old-fashioned books. Retro books, if you like." He acknowledges that "if it hadn't been for J.K. Rowling's success, I probably wouldn't have this success. Now that there's not a Harry Potter this year, I think the newspapers are looking for something to keep the Harry Potter news going."

But the press has been following this scent thanks to winks and nods from Colfer's various publishers, who seem to believe that the Harry Potter phenomenon, which grew slowly on the basis of pass-along readership, can now be conjured up and handed down. Colfer shouldn't be blamed for being a lesser writer than Rowling; but he can be charged with producing an awkward, calculated, humorless and mean-spirited book.

-Reported by Andrea Sachs/New York