Extinction Blues: A Review of Highfire, by Eoin Colfer

When once there was a single genre of fantasy, now there are many.  Fantasy used to mean dragons, orcs, epic adventures, battle between good and evil, among other such literary tropes.  But you can only tell the same story so many times, in the same setting, before it begins to get stale.  Luckily, fantasy has proven itself to be a versatile genre, in that it is not a single genre anymore.  Rather, it facilitates the mixing of multiple genres to create something new.  Now, traditional fantasy can be more commonly known as high fantasy.  It’s counterpart, though not its opposite, is low fantasy.  The transplanting of traditional fantasy elements, such as dragons, into an otherwise mundane setting, such as rural Louisiana.  Highfire is one of the latest in a heritage of low fantasy.

Highfire is written by Eoin Colfer, famously known for the excellent Artemis Fowl series of novels.  Through the Artemis Fowl series, Colfer established a certain tone and approach for his writing of fantasy.  The elements of high fantasy were present—elves, dwarves, centaurs, and more—but twisted into something completely new.  Sometimes realistic, sometimes disgusting, sometimes hilarious.  Leprechauns became members of LEPRecon, a law enforcement unit made of various fantasy creatures.  Dwarves were able to eat tremendous amounts of earth, digest it into clay, and quickly expel it as excrement as they dug tunnels.  While ostensibly fantasy, Artemis Fowl freely played with science-fiction, spy thrillers, crime stories, and more during its eight-novel tenure.  While Highfire is not connected to the series, its roots in Artemis Fowl are clear.

Highfire is set in modern-day Louisiana, in a small town located on a waterway connected to the various bayous and swamps where many people live and make their living.  Living deep in the swamp is Wyvern, Lord Highfire of the Highfire Eyrie, also known as Vern, believing himself to be the last of the dragons occupying Earth.  After millennia of ruling over humanity, the dragons grew complacent and could not stop the human tide from hunting them down.  Now, he hides in the swamp, depressed and solitary.  Meanwhile, Everett “Squib” Moreau, a fifteen-year old of Cajun descent living with his single mother, hustles to make ends meet while constantly clashing with the local Constable Regence Hook.  After an explosive meeting, Vern is coerced to take on Squib as his employee and familiar, running errands for him through the swamp and seeing to his every whim.  Of course, no story is complete without conflict.  Enter Constable Hook and his own designs for the world.

While the name is named after Vern and opens with his point-of-view, the main character of the novel is arguably Squib.  Squib undergoes the most character growth, and the novel’s central conflict centers around him and his actions.  And, despite opening with Vern, the novel closes out with Squib, showing that he has finally come into his own.  Squib is a fairly unique character in that he is normally what one thinks of as a fantasy protagonist.  He is a relatively naïve and unknowledgeable teenager, gullible enough to take adults at their word and not be shocked by the appearance of a dragon.  While exceedingly clever, Squib also suffers from a lack of education and lack of interest in becoming more educated.  What he does care about is his mother, Elodie, understanding the pain his mistakes cause and wanting nothing more than to keep her safe and happy.  Although he does not exactly mature over the course of the novel—he is still fifteen, after all—Squib does learn how to take responsibility when he is needed.

Wyvern, Lord Highfire, Vern for short is not your average dragon.  While not immediately clear, Vern is roughly human sized, standing at around seven feet tall.  Far from the enormous, sky-filling creatures seen in other works, it is more believable in Highfire that medieval humans could have hunted and killed the world’s draconic population.  In the modern day, however, Vern spends his time hanging out in the bayou drinking as much Absolut as possible and listening to old jazz.  While the occasionally wild boar or alligator challenges him for the territory, Vern easily puts them in their place, maintain a modicum of physical fitness on his part.  Vern is foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, and fond of mixing slang from the last one hundred years.  Vern is depressed, paranoid, and borderline suicidal when we first meet him, and his initial encounter nearly ends with him killing the boy.  Through his one and only friend, Vern is coerced to hire Squib on as his errand boy, keeping the supply of vodka, Flashdance t-shirts, and impulse purchases on Amazon coming.  However, Vern’s personality dos begin to change after meeting Squib, pushing through the depression and allowing Vern to realize that he can have friends in this modern world.

The role of the main antagonist of Highfire is filled by Constable Regence Hook.  Rather than bringing in another supernatural threat for Vern to combat, such as another dragon, Constable Hook is gloriously mundane.  For most of the novel, he has no idea Vern exists and has no reason to believe in the supernatural.  Where the threat of Hook presents itself is through his cruelty and corruption.  A former Army veteran, Regence Hook only joined the military to escape a prison sentence.  He is more than willing to kill, lie, steal, cheat, and perform any unspeakable act needed to push forward his own agenda.  His careful and intelligent nature ensures that is never caught and his messes are always cleaned up.  His conflict with Squib is two-fold and only escalated during the book.  First, he fully intends to woo and seduce Squib’s mother, happy to resort to force if she does not give into his advances.  Second, Squib accidentally witnesses and records Hook murdering and disposing of a local drug runner on orders from a New Orleans French Quarter gang boss.  While Constable Hook can sometimes come across as almost cartoonishly villainous, the threat he presents is very real and, once he learns about Vern, absolutely credible.

While Highfire is ultimately a very enjoyable, darkly comedic novel, it is not perfect.  Eoin Colfer is a white Irish man writing about a people very different from his own.  The Cajuns living in the United States enjoy a unique culture, dialect, and language that is difficult to accurately represent from an outside perspective.  However, it is very clear on the page that Colfer enjoys and loves the setting and people, so any missteps made are small and hopefully forgivable in the service of the adventure.  It is also difficult to not compare Highfire to the Artemis Fowl series, despite being two very different beasts aimed at very different age groups.  Ultimately, Highfire shows that Colfer is confidently moving out from the shadow of his most well-known work.

Highfire can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 9 days

Next on the List: Stealing Thunder, by Alina Boyden

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