Disclaimer: I received an Advance Review Copy from the publisher, Jo Fletcher Books, in return for an honest review.
I’d like to say that Eoin Colfer was a staple of childhood whom I remember with fondness, but – truth be told – I picked up Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books as an alleged adult and thoroughly enjoyed them. Fun, entertaining, playful with vivid characters. So hearing that he was to release Highfire, an adult fantasy novel featuring a Flashdance-loving, vodka-swilling dragon was exciting! And for the publisher to wing a copy in the post after a cheeky tweet was a delight!
And tomorrow, it is released!
In the swamps around New Orleans, hic iacet draconis: here be dragons.
The novel centres around three key characters:
- Squib Moreau, the cheeky whippersnapper on the river, with a hint of Huckleberry Finn and Artful Dodger with a winning childish innocence despite his forays into borderline legal activities;
- Vern, short for Wyvern, Lord Highfire of Highfire Eyrie, the aforementioned dragon – the last dragon on earth (as far as he is aware) – and hiding out with his martini, vodka, cable television and oil; and
- Regence Hooke, the local constable, who is a thoroughly rotten egg.
A terrible coincidence puts Squib and Hooke in the same place at the same time and allows Squib to witness a cold-blooded murder which, in turn, puts him in Hooke’s sights. As Hooke rains fire on the island on which Squib is hiding, the chaos and violence draws out Vern who rescues Squib – not through any benevolence but to try to preserve the peace and avoid attention. And so our key players are brought together.
Vern is not what you might expect from any depiction of dragon – and if you have ever read the Artemis Fowl books, you wouldn’t expect him to simply follow the conventions that he is working with. Vern is not the gold-hoarding Smaug, nor the soaring beasts of Game of Thrones, nor the mystical and spiritual creatures of Eastern mythology. He is distinctly humanoid and the size of a bear, with a very human irascible personality – the grumpy loner living alone in the bayou, isolated from humanity with a tragic history that still troubles him and armed with a portable arsenal and special set of skills. He could be Rambo or Bryan Mills from the Taken series and nothing much would be altered in the story. But still, Vern is absolutely capable of laying waste to those who rile him – and we get to see one particularly dramatic set piece assault on a (minor) mob boss.
And Colfer seems to have put a fair bit of thought into the mechanics of being a dragon: the production of fire, of flight, of cloaking – and a lot of thought, and word count, spent on dragon genitalia! As he has apparently been considering dragons for a while, according to a Goodreads interview, this may not be surprising:
I wanted to do a dragon book for years and Highfire is actually my third attempt, but I could never nail the idea until it occurred to me to make it a modern story in the real world.
After that I applied logic to the problem i.e. if a dragon had survived how would he have managed it? It seemed to me that he would have to hide out somewhere either very remote, or somewhere he would blend in with the locals.
From there it was a small step to the locals being alligators and from there to the swamps of Louisiana.
Hooke, however, for me was the standout character. In this world where almost everything is a shade of grey, Hooke was an all-out evil bastard. Chillingly vile. Murderer, rapist, drug and weapon trafficker and with plans afoot for taking over the illegal trafficking trade from the local mob boss in New Orleans. Until he sets eyes on Vern. At one point in the novel, he compares himself to Ahab and there was certainly something monomaniacal about him – not simply in his pursuit of Verb, but also his pursuit of Elodie Moreau, Squib’s beloved mother.
I also loved Waxman and will leave you to discover him and what he is for yourselves.
The plot rattles on at a brisk pace, skipping over weeks here and there, and there is rarely a page not devoted to driving the plot forward towards its inevitable and destructive confrontation. Considering that the other books I am reading is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in her Hands, it is a pleasure to drop into a plot-driven novel from time to time. Alongside that, Colfer’s prose is steeped in the cajun world of his characters – quite a feat of linguistic ventriloquism – and littered with pop culture references all of which is simple and pure fun, even as the body count (which is significant) starts to mount.
Quite clearly, Colfer had a blast writing Highfire: it is exuberant and energetic and genuinely entertaining. It does carry a fairly heavily laboured moral message – that we are all souls regardless of whether we are in a draconic or human body – which felt a little obvious perhaps, but it doesn’t detract from that fun.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Jo Fletcher
Date: 28th January 2020