Dirty cops, Daddy issues and, well, Dragons? Eoin Colfer's newest adult novel has all the charm, wit and imagination of his beloved children's fiction. Don't mistake High Fire for a child-friendly book though as Colfer's adult language and violent descriptions constantly remind the reader that this is not an Artemis Fowl novel.
Set in a swamp in Louisiana, High Fire holds no grandiose notions of what a fantasy should be. The first character the reader meets is Vern, the last dragon in the world (potentially). Having suffered a fall from grace at the hands of humanity, he has lived comfortably for years as a swamp dweller rather than as ruler of dragons.
Vern leads an unglamorous lifestyle consuming reality TV and too much vodka, an existence far removed from his glory days as Lord High Fire. Enter Squib, a fifteen-year-old boy with a penchant for trouble. In order to avoid being incinerated, Squib becomes the dragon's familiar. Shenanigans ensue.
The most striking element of High Fire is not the down-on-his-luck dragon, but rather the relationships between the central characters. If Squib's adoration for his mother does not melt the heart of the reader then his bond with Vern will. The novel is slow-paced for the first half as the two build a relationship that encourages growth in both characters with Vern easing his loneliness by becoming a mentor figure to the young Squib. Colfer effectively uses Vern to discuss the pain of isolation and its serious implications for the mental health of dragons and humans alike. The development of both characters through their relationship is heartwarming, as both a dragon and a troublesome boy find someone who will believe in them.
In High Fire, Colfer employs the age-old technique of fantasy as vehicle to reveal the flaws of mankind. Constant critique is made of humanity by the mythological creatures who have observed humans for centuries. Humanity is at its worst in the truly detestable villain that is Constable Regence Hooke, the self-declared 'King of the crazies'.
Hooke's unhinged violence and position of minor authority makes him a constant threat to Squib, and in turn Vern, throughout the novel. His desire to be rid of Squib is matched only by his desire to seduce Squib’s mother. Hooke’s involvement with the wannabe mob boss Ivory Conti draws the genres of fantasy and crime together to generate a gritty and explosive story-line not often seen in fantasy novels. Colfer excels in bringing this concoction vividly to life.
A slight disappointment for female fans of Colfer will be the male-centred narrative. High Fire is a novel that lets boys have all the fun, a fact reiterated by the constant phallic jokes. Squib’s mother is simply an object of desire and a mother, marked by her beauty and how kind she is to all. No female characters are introduced until the final sixty pages and even then they are one-dimensional human weapons, far from the complex characterisation of Captain Holly Short in Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series.
This is a minor flaw which does not inhibit enjoyment of the novel. Ultimately, High Fire is a reality check for fantasy. Conventions of pretension are challenged and the absurd is exalted. Vern is not the noble or fearsome creature of the fantasy genre but a Coldplay-listening, Flashdance-loving dragon. Then there is Vern’s passionate rant about his hatred for Game of Thrones and his run-ins with Lord of the Ring's enthusiasts - High Fire is an excellent example of low fantasy at its peak.
The plot can best be summarised as a 'gangster show with a supernatural element’, to use words from the novel itself. For fans of Eoin Colfer, this is a must-read which will remind them as to why they fell in love with his books as a child. All those who read will want a sequel.