Highfire: A Novel

Image of Highfire: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 28, 2020
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by: 

“Beyond the narrative wisecracks and ridiculously disastrous situations Colfer puts the characters through, what makes Highfire so successful is the author’s sharp, compelling crafting of those three point-of-view characters.”

Every now and then a book comes along that tackles the ageless question: What if a hard-drinking, smart-mouthed, Flashdance-inspired wyvern was living deep in the Louisiana bayou, biding the centuries in a satellite TV-equipped man shack?

All right. Perhaps not such an ageless premise. But an entirely appealing one, which when handled with relentless wit and a reverence for absurdity becomes comic genius and an all-around instant classic.

Do not be fooled. In his first adult market novel, Colfer, acclaimed author of the Artemis Fowl series, never flies aloft of high fantasy conventions, exactly. There are epic quests and battles and of course a dragon. The characters and situations are merely updated for modern readers. It works especially well for those of us who generally find young adult books a bit too young adult-ish while shamelessly savoring well-written juvenile humor.

The Lord Highfire, who nowadays just goes by his birth name Vern, must decide whether he can tolerate the self-loathing of his hermit lifestyle or take up the brave journey of searching for survivors of his species, who were hoodwinked and slaughtered by humans in medieval times. The villain of the story, Constable Regence Hooke, must fulfill his destiny of becoming the biggest, baddest crime boss in the South. Then there’s 15-year-old Everett “Squib” Moreau, a hard-hustling truant with flexible ethics. He lost his daddy to suicide and is approaching a pivotal life juncture where his choices will decide what kind of man he will become.

Beyond the narrative wisecracks and ridiculously disastrous situations Colfer puts the characters through, what makes Highfire so successful is the author’s sharp, compelling crafting of those three point-of-view characters. 

They collide when Squib is headed down the nighttime Pearl River in his trusty pirogue to present his ferrying services to a bootlegger. Instead, he catches the ruthless Constable slicing open Squib’s would-be boss with a gut hook. Times being what they are, Squib sneaks over to the riverbank to commemorate the outrageous deed with his cell phone camera. The blue light of his phone gives him away, and though he escapes identification (for the moment), that’s cold comfort when Constable Hooke aims his grenade launcher in Squib’s direction.

The racket reaches Vern’s hidden den, bringing to mind a special forces operation to smoke out dragons from the swamp. He launches out in stealth mode to take inventory of the bad news and thinks he’s managed the threat, sending one of Hooke’s grenades back to his boat batter-style while snatching Squib to barbecue in the privacy of his home.

Neither venture goes as planned. Hooke takes a snake-bite diving under water before his boat explodes, but he lives to avenge another day. Squib uses his swamp rat wiles to keep Vern talking instead of frying, and he grabs the opportunity to give the dragon the slip.

The chase is on. Hooke must find and destroy Squib before he blabs about what he saw. Vern must find and destroy Squib for largely similar reasons. Squib would be happy to never say a word about either matter, but it’s hard to convince a sociopathic policeman and a misanthropic dragon just how earnest he is about that.

Amid the well-played antics, Squib and Vern’s relationship provides a charming, even heartwarming storyline reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon. Colfer actually makes reference to both works in a winking manner. Beneath the laughs, Highfire is essentially about three men at different life stages challenged by deep seated trauma. Well, two men and an anthropomorphized fire-breathing lizard.

It’s a theme one wouldn’t expect in such a spoofy story. Yet Colfer shows how comedy can be the perfect medium for exploring serious, real world issues. The story never gets syrupy or preachy, but like watching a Coen Brothers film, one can’t help rooting for Colfer’s three comic leads to get their acts together. They each got to where they are by bad life choices, but who’s to say they don’t deserve redemption?   

A sure winner for fans of comedy adventures and a lot of fun for everybody else.