I enjoyed this book for its sense of fun, adventure, and escapism. I’m not a fantasy reader and I’m of a generation that predates Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl children’s stories but I know a good book when I read one. Incidentally, as this is the author’s first adult fantasy novel, it’s fresh territory for him too. When you find a story that takes you out of yourself and lets you inhabit another world for a period of time it is to be savoured and Highfire is one such. Colfer knows how to energise the imagination so that readers can fly with the last dragon, Vern (even if they don’t believe in dragons per se, sorry, but I don’t). This is a rambunctious adventure that lets rip with invention but to be a little serious for a moment, Highfire has some topical themes at its heart: the difficulties of growing up in a tough environment, the struggles of single parenthood, the pitfalls of the adult world – some of them are good others are very bad, and the acceptance of difference.

The more I think about it the more I think that the way we restrict children’s imaginations in the search for conformity is just plain stupid, by adulthood all the fun of invention has faded. There’s a little magic for adults to enjoy here. Highfire is wicked, at times a little bit gruesome (in a fascinating user friendly way), it’s funny and entertaining, a light read that is a real page turner. Colfer gets coming of age (Squib the Cajun tearaway protagonist is fifteen), the intersection with the adult world and inter-generational interactions. His light-hearted depiction of the clash between good and evil, this is a minor morality tale, is well realised.

Vern (he’s a Wyvern) is Lord Highfire of Highfire Eyrie, or at least he used to be. Now he lives in a swamp: ‘Mudsville, Louisiana’. He’s happy with his lot as long as Waxman keeps him supplied with his favourite brand of vodka – it helps keep the fire in the belly going. Mostly the alligators do as they are told but the idea of sex with an inferior species leaves him cold, so the relationship has its limits. It goes without saying, the reason Vern is here in the first place is his interaction with good old human beings. Vern does not trust them, an angry mob chased him from his home a long time ago. His hidey hole in the bayou is an abandoned shack on the Pearl river, away from settlements and people. Isolation is good, an attempt to get on social media drew too much human attention – the last dragon needs to keep a low profile.

The human boy known as Squib, real name Everett Moreau, lives with his mother Elodie, they were abandoned by his father when he was thirteen. Since then he had a temporary ‘fake’ dad, a man he didn’t like but kind of got used to, only now he’s also left and fifteen-year-old Squib misses him. Elodie works her fingers to the bone for just over minimum wage, and she does her best by Squib but he does his own thing, he’s always getting into trouble. Squib’s situation just got worse – Elodie turned down Constable Regence Hooke in the Pearl bar with a put down that made the place breakup in fits of laughter. Hooke doesn’t take rejection lightly, he wants Elodie more than ever now. Paradoxically, this is bad news for Squib, Hooke’s got it in for the boy, it was even Hooke who gave him his nickname (damp squib). Elodie knows Squib doesn’t have a bright future, maybe Hooke can take him in hand?

Hooke, not to put too fine a point on it, is a corrupt cop, working all the angles he can for an extra buck. With a list of offences as long as your arm, Hooke accepted the judge’s invitation to join the army when he was eighteen. Now he’s a cop in his forties, corrupt and a trained killer. He “works” for Ivory Conti the local receiving agent for the Los Zetas cartel. Which brings us to the point: Hooke has a job on – Willard Carnahan. It’s annoying because Carnahan was part of Hooke’s plan to move on Conte in the future, but he has to go. Carnahan got stiffed on a recreational drug buy in New Orleans a little while back, he beat the dealer to a pulp. So Hooke has made his way to Honey Island, Carnahan’s home. Squib is also on his way there but when he sees Hooke talking to Carnahan he hides, eavesdropping on the two men. Hooke wants to diversify into guns; buy cheap in Louisiana and sell high in California, the cartels have the drug trade sewn up, anyway for now he doing Conti’s bidding. The dealer Carnahan banged up was, note the ‘was’, Conti’s cousin (RIP). Conti wants Carnahan dead, so Hooke guts him and chucks him in the river. Squib saw it all, even got it on his phone, but he’s wishing he was anywhere else right now. When the body snags where he’s hiding a snapping turtle bites off Carnahan head, Squib can’t help uttering:

“Jesus goddamned Christ.”

Hooke hears it, by doesn’t recognise the boy, Squib runs and the chase begins. Hooke is an experienced hunter amusing himself with concussion grenades, smoking the boy out. Luckily for Squib, Vern takes exception to the noise, he swoops down and grabs the boy up. Hooke can only stare as his prey and the ‘creature?’ disappear into the night. Vern and Squib don’t know it yet but they are about to become embroiled in a web of schemes and dastardly plans. It’s a crazy roller-coaster ride of a read.

This is an adventure, fantasy, crime novel (yeah, it presses all the buttons). It seems to me to be an adult/YA cross-over. I’m no expert in what young people should read but aside from the language this story seems appropriate for late teens, a bit gory, a bit irreverent. Colfer has a ear for dialogue, and the setting really does have that Louisiana feel, you are in the swamp; hot, sticky, humid, muddy.

Eoin Colfer is the best-selling author of the Artemis Fowl series. A Kenneth Branagh movie version of Artemis Fowl is set to be released in May this year.

Fans of fantasy and Colfer will love this book.

Paul Burke

Personal read – 3.5*
Group read – 4*

Highfire by Eoin Colfer
Jo Fletcher Books 9781529402049 hbk Jan 2020