Guest Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

For this entry, my lovely and talented editor Alex steps out of the shadows once again (after previously reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth) and provides us with a guest review of a book she recently picked up.

The Fowl Twins Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: The Fowl Twins – Book One

Length: 432 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Unseen Library occasionally raises the topic of auto-buy authors, and Eoin Colfer is one of mine. I’m already hyped for Highfire, so you can imagine my excitement when I happened upon a display of The Fowl Twins in a department store the other day. I didn’t even break my stride or pause to read the back cover; as soon as I saw the words “Colfer” and “Fowl” I picked up a copy and had started reading it before I reached the checkout queue. The eight Artemis Fowl books followed the eponymous juvenile criminal mastermind and his many run-ins with the People, the secret civilisation of magical beings living deep underground. The series ran from 2001 to 2012 and was one of my favourites growing up, so I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Colfer is now continuing the saga.

The Fowl Twins picks up the story several years after Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, the final book in the original series. Artemis himself gets a rest; this story follows his younger brothers, Myles and Beckett. Myles is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Artemis and their father, with a talent for the sciences, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a penchant for fashionable suits and cutting insults. Beckett is more interested in active pursuits and making friends with wildlife, but he shares the same cunning and passionate loyalty that Fowls are famous for. The twins were only toddlers in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian and have no memory of the People, and it appears that their lives have been relatively quiet since those events. But in the Fowl world quiet never lasts for long, and when a rare troll surfaces on the family estate the twins suddenly find themselves in the midst of a cat-and-mouse game with an LEP specialist, an immortal duke and a knife-wielding nun.

Given that this is the ninth book set in the Fowl universe, the story is built upon a great deal of already-established Fairy lore and, indeed, laws. However, it does not wholly rely on readers having a certain level of assumed knowledge; Colfer ensures that no reader gets left behind. The appropriate backstory and important details are provided where necessary in his usual elegant style so that new readers are informed and old fans aren’t bored by the rehashing of exposition. As an old fan myself, albeit one with an appalling memory, I really appreciated the unobtrusive reminders of previous events in the Fowl canon.

There is of course a lot for fans of the original series to enjoy, including some excellent cameos. I found that many elements of the story mirrored the original Artemis Fowl. Myles and Beckett are around the same age Artemis was in his first Fairy adventure, and it was amazing to see how their different upbringings shaped them. When we first meet Artemis, he is in a desperate pursuit to rescue his father from a Russian mafia and his mother from her rapidly deepening delirium. Myles and Beckett, on the other hand, have enjoyed an upbringing with an intact, stable family and without the inherent danger that comes with being part of an active criminal empire. They are, as a result, far more well adjusted 11-year-olds, and it was so enjoyable to see the bond the boys all share.

Also like Artemis Fowl, The Fowl Twins features at its core a plot to kidnap a Fairy creature for personal gain, but this time the Fowls are innocent. Instead, the baddie is the whimsically named Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, who I can’t help but imagine as a scoundrel in the style of Terry-Thomas, whose ruthless quest for immortality leads him to the Fowl estate to tackle a troll. No Fowl story would be complete without the involvement of the LEP, and Specialist Lazuli Heitz finds herself in an uncomfortably similar position to Captain Holly Short, in that her supposedly straightforward surface mission goes immediately haywire as soon as the Fowls get involved. Lazuli is an excellent addition to the main cast of characters, and her talent for quick-thinking and creative problem-solving perfectly complement those of the boys she finds herself teamed up with.

The Fowl Twins is an excellent blend of suspense and action, and Eoin Colfer’s impeccably charming style of omniscient narration means there’s never a dull moment. The story is also incredibly fast-paced, with 400-odd pages covering only a couple of days, and so compelling that I finished reading it in no time. This book is fun for all ages and would make an excellent Christmas gift for a young new reader, a 20-something who loved the original series, or really anyone who enjoys a suspenseful story with a magical element. I can’t wait to see more adventures of Myles, Beckett and Lazuli.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

From award-winning fantasy author Naomi Novik comes an innovative novel that repackages the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin and portrays a fresh and much darker take on a story no longer fit for children.

Miryem is the daughter of an ineffective village moneylender, whose kind nature is taken advantage of by their neighbours.  Forced to harden her heart and take over the family business, Miryem is soon successful in her new career and quickly turns her family’s fortunes around.  As her business grows, rumours soon spread that she has the ability to turn silver into gold.  But words have power, and this boast has been overheard by the king of the Staryks, powerful fairies who hold dominion over winter.  The Staryk king sets Miryem an impossible task: to turn three increasing amounts of silver coins into gold.  If she fails, she dies, but if she succeeds, an even worst fate awaits her: marriage to the cruel king in his harsh kingdom of ice.

Forced to find a way to escape her life of captivity, Miryem finds a common cause with Irina, the daughter of a powerful nobleman.  Irina has caught the attention of the Tsar and has used magical Staryk silver to win his hand in marriage.  However, the Tsar has a dark secret that could threaten the realm, and Irina must find a way to survive his terrible powers.  With no other choice, Miryem, Irina and Miryem’s servant, Wanda, embark on a daring quest to free themselves from these terrible forces.

The story within Spinning Silver is told through first person narrations from a variety of the characters featured within the book.  The three main characters, Miryem, Wanda and Irina, each have their own adventures and narrate the vast majority of the book.  Other side characters, such as Wanda’s younger brother, Stepon, and Irina’s old maid, Magreta, also narrate several parts of the book, although these sections are usually tied into the storylines of the main characters.

Naomi Novik is an exciting name in fantasy fiction, best known for her nine Temeraire books set in an alternate version of 19th century Europe in which the English and French fought the Napoleonic War with the help of dragons.  Her latest book, Spinning Silver, is more reminiscent of her 2015 release, UprootedUprooted, which is currently being looked at for a movie adaptation, was a standalone fantasy novel that utilised common fairy tale elements to create a unique and enthralling tale.

Spinning Silver is a dark and gripping fantasy story that is a loose adaption of the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  The book’s main character, Miryem, is this story’s version of the local village girl who runs afoul of the magical creature.  However, rather than being a miller’s daughter whose father claims she can weave straw into gold, Miryem is a money lender and businesswoman who earns gold through her business acumen and mercantile skill.  Her initial challenge to change a material, in this case silver, into gold is done in a much more practical way than making a deal with a supernatural force.  This is a fantastic and modern twist on a key point of this classic story, and Novik follows up with an inventive fantasy narrative which uses other key elements from the original fairy tale to an amazing effect.

Novik weaves several other unique story points from Rumpelstiltskin into this story, and readers will enjoy seeing several memorable elements of a story they have known since childhood inserted into a new and more adult fantasy tale.  For example, in the fairy tale, the imp Rumpelstiltskin appears to the miller’s daughter three times to spin straw into gold.  The first time he appears he demands the daughter’s necklace as payment for this gift, while during his second visit he demands her ring.  Novik reverses this in her story, by having Miryem use the silver she has been given to create a ring and a necklace, which she can then sell to raise the gold she requires.  Another example is the idea of the miller’s daughter having to fill three rooms with gold to marry the king and stay alive.  In Spinning Silver, the fairy king demands that Miryem turn all the silver in three rooms into gold or else be killed.  Novik instils her character with a certain amount of logic, which allows her to come up with a simple and clever solution to this task.  Other parts of the book that have their roots in the fairy tale include the fairy king only allowing Miryem to ask three questions every night, his unwillingness for anyone to know his name and the general death sentence hanging over her head should she fail any of her undertakings.  Novik’s ingenious use of elements associated with Rumpelstiltskin is a highlight of this book which results in a bold and captivating new story.

In many ways, this is a story about exploitation, as the main characters try to overcome their situation and take control of their own lives.  For example, Wanda and her bothers live with an abusive father, and Wanda attempts to use her connections to Miryem to earn enough money to flee.  Another character, Irina, is initially exploited by her father, who sees her as a political tool rather than a daughter.  However, her exploitation by her eventual husband, the Tsar, is far worse, and Irina is forced to think of some inventive ways to manipulate the Tsar and his demonic ally in order to gain her freedom and keep her people alive.  While Miryem does have a loving family, the entire village exploits Miryem and her family.  Miryem is forced to become a hardened moneylender and then must outsmart the Staryk king to stay alive.  Watching the characters change their nature and way of thinking in order to overcome the people using them is a fantastic piece of this story.

Like her previous book, Uprooted, Novik has set her book in an Eastern European landscape, during an unknown period of history.  Despite the Germanic origins of Rumpelstiltskin, the setting of Spinning Silver feels somewhat more like Russian or Slavic in origin, with Tsars and Russian currency included in the narrative.  The dark, snow-filled forests that surround the story’s towns and cities are the perfect backdrop for this story, and Novik does an amazing job of conveying the cold and hidden menace that they contain.  Several of the characters in the book, including Miryem, are Jewish, and Novik spends time exploring how this group were treated and exploited.  There are many examples of the other characters, especially the inhabitants of Miryem’s village, treating these characters poorly, which reflects the poor treatment that the Jewish population suffered throughout Eastern Europe, while also focusing on the role they often played as moneylenders.  Overall, the dark Eastern European setting helps turn the usual child-friendly story into something colder and more hostile, and it is fascinating to see Novik’s supernatural and fantasy elements included in this historical situation.

Naomi Novik has completely reinvented one of our oldest and best-known fairy tales into a deeply fascinating and captivating story.  This book highlights Novik’s fantastic understanding and utilisation of key elements of the original tale and makes full use of its deeply haunting setting and compelling dark twists.  Spinning Silver is an excellent outing from Novik, who once again shows why she is one of the most creative minds in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars