Artemis Fowl is a young-adult fantasy novel about a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind from Dublin. Unlike most main characters in young-adult novels, Artemis is an antihero instead of the hero of the series. He is a deviant mastermind whose ultimate goal is to steal gold from the fairy world, by whatever means. His plot begins in Vietnam, where he blackmails an alcoholic sprite for her book of secrets. After he translates the book into modern English for the first time in history, he plots to kidnap a fairy in order to blackmail the fairy underworld to give him gold. Meanwhile, Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon unit (the fairy special forces) is placed on a mission to recover a wayward troll who is causing mayhem in the human world. The fairies live underground, completely cut off from the human world. The human world does not know about their existence, and they want to keep it that way—they believe that if humans were to discover the existence of fairies, there would be a disastrous war that could wipe out the fairy race. Holly is able to subdue the troll, but it takes the rest of her magical powers. She travels to Italy in order to complete a ritual which will return her powers to her.
Artemis kidnaps Holly in Italy before she can complete the ritual. Artemis and Butler, his servant, take Holly back to the Fowl estate in Dublin. His plan hits a roadblock when the fairy special forces, the LEPrecons, stage a counter-attack. A LEP retrieval team is first sent to the manor, and they use their fairy "shielding" ability in order to disguise themselves—using their magic, they can make themselves vibrate at an incredibly high frequency, which makes them invisible to the human eye. Luckily, Artemis has anticipated their shields and programed the security system of his house at a faster frame-per-second rate so that he can see the fairies. Butler takes down the intruders, while LEPrecon unit commander Root decides to place a time-stop over Fowl manor and enters the manor to negotiate with Artemis. Artemis tells Commander Root that he wants one ton of 24-carat gold, and that he knows about the time-stop and knows how to defeat it. Meanwhile, the LEPrecons, led by Commander Root, attempt to gain entrance into Fowl Manor to save Holly. They call upon a notorious criminal, the kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggums, who is often on the wrong side of the law. They ask him to dig a tunnel underground in order to break into Fowl Manor. Normally, fairies are prohibited from entering households where they are not invited, but Mulch gave up his magical powers after a lifetime of crime. What they don't know, however, is that Mulch is secretly intending to keep the gold for himself.
Mulch is able to break into the Manor while Foaly (a centaur who works at the LEPrecon and is excellent at developing new technology) feeds Artemis's security cameras a loop. Mulch explores the Fowl manor, and he finds a safe where Artemis is hiding the Book, revealing to the LEPrecons where his knowledge is coming from. The Fairy Counsel, fed up that they have made no progress, promotes a fairy named Lieutenant Briar Cudgeon to Acting Commander, replacing Commander Root. Meanwhile, Holly breaks through the concrete floor of her holding cell and is able to complete the rituals which give her back her magical power. Cudgeon decides to release the troll that Holly released earlier into the Fowl manor, but Butler is able to subdue the troll after Holly heals him. Cudgeon is subsequently fired. The LEPrecon unit finally gives Artemis the gold ransom, but they are planning to perform a "blue rinse" (a bomb that kills all life) which will give them back their gold once they defeat Artemis. Artemis administers a sleeping potion to himself, Butler, and Butler's little sister, Juliet. Bound by magical law, the fairies are forced to leave half of their gold with Artemis. After the fairies leave, Artemis discovers that his mother has been cured by Holly's healing powers.
Because Colfer's publications prior to Artemis Fowl received wide acclaim, he was offered an advance of £500,000—unheard of in the children's book industry. Before Colfer finished the novel, its rights were sold in twelve different countries, including Sweden, Brazil, Spain, Israel, Denmark, Italy, and Germany. Colfer has stated that he "deliberately set out to write a book for an international audience, particularly in the fantasy market" when writing Artemis Fowl. In doing so, he hoped to "write the fairy world from a new angle, creating fairies who were not just good or bad, but had a lot of human qualities, family problems, neuroses, the works." In this way, the novels are a combination of real-life and "updated" Irish mythology. The fairies are slightly based on the television drama Hill Street Blues, one of the only shows Colfer was allowed to stay up and watch as a kid.
When Artemis Fowl was published, it received much positive critical attention. In 2004, it won the Young Reader's Choice Award and the Garden State Teen Book Award. The New York Post said that Artemis Fowl "will grab your interest, no matter what your age." Time.com said "Artemis Fowl is pacy, playful, and very funny, an inventive mix of myth and modernity, magic and crime." The New York Times Book Review said that "Colfer has done enormously, explosively well." It has since been adapted into a graphic novel and a Disney film, which premiered on Disney + in June 2020.