Colfer's tale of FBI secrecy and time travel in London is delightful, compelling and assured
Some people think that if a work of art is commercially successful, then it can't be of high quality. There's an authors' rule of thumb that warns against writing about time travel because of the insurmountable inconsistencies it rapidly throws up. And there's a maxim in publishing that says people don't buy books by authors whose names they can't pronounce. Eoin Colfer is the writer who joyfully breaks all three of these rules.
Famous, among other books, for his bestselling Artemis Fowl series, Colfer long ago proved that the popular adventure story can also be well-written – Artemis Fowl stands head and shoulders above a large crowd of titles competing for that coveted accolade of "books that boys love to read" because his prose is slicker, wittier and just that bit quirkier than the others.
The Reluctant Assassin is book one of the WARP series. WARP stands for Witness Anonymous Relocation Program, a top-secret FBI witness-protection programme that hides its clients in a very secure place indeed – the past. And the past, Victorian London to be precise, is where the novel starts, as young Riley, the reluctant hero of the book's title, is led by his magician-turned-assassin master Albert Garrick towards committing his first murder. At the last moment, the pair are catapulted forwards over a hundred years to modern London, and into the crosshairs of the FBI's youngest and mouthiest agent, Chevron Savano.
Savano, having bungled a job back in California, has been dispatched to idle away her career on a boring detail in London – watching a strange metal pod in the basement of a house in Bedford Square for months on end. Nothing has emerged from this pod in years, until Riley and the murdering Garrick arrive in a bubble of quantum "foam", and so begins a delightful adventure romping between Victorian London and the city of our own times.
Riley is no mere cipher of a hero and neither is Savano, his modern counterpart; both have engaging backstories, and throughout there is the sense of a writer who knows exactly what he's doing. Colfer's characters are compelling and well drawn, but they are also likable, and the book gallops to a conclusion that is satisfying and yet leaves us wanting more.
As for time travel, Colfer neatly sidesteps the potential "why-don't-they-just-travel-back-five-minutes-before-such-and-such-happens?" question that is often all too easy to level at a certain long-running television series. Here time travel is only possible through pods connected to the ends of a wormhole of a fixed length – as the future end moves forward through time, the end in the past is moving forward, too, thus preventing writers' nightmares. And readers' nightmares: for this kind of stuff matters – once we lose confidence in an author, it's very easy to stop believing, which is only one step behind no longer caring about what happens. There's no such danger with Colfer: from the first page to the last, The Reluctant Assassin will please his many existing fans and is sure to win him a few new ones, too.
Oh, and as for that business about names – it's pronounced "Owen".
• Marcus Sedgwick's Midwinterblood is published by Indigo.