Book three of the Alex Rider series. Alex Rider is British, and really, he shines in England. Something about the interactions across the pond seem to flow naturally and be so lifelike I can see the book unfolding in my head. Once you add Americans into the picture, its another story. Or maybe just less of a movie-in-book-form than previous volumes; either way, the Americans stand out like cardboard cut outs on a live action set. Thankfully, that is rectified when our main bad guy shows up (he and the main minions are Russian), and things kick into high gear for another rousing adventure.
PLOT: revolves around Alex getting roped into another mission, this one in America, involving a Russian nuclear nutcase. Instead of the British spy agency backing him all the way, he has to work with two American CIA agents (who aren’t supposed to tell the kid anything), and as usual, nobody knows what they’re actually after, even Alex. Alex, one female agent, and one male agent are soon in Florida, trying to get into the mansion of an impressively protective former Soviet general. His house consumes an entire island, and only a deep underwater cave is left unguarded…
POSITIVE: The world of spies is murky and uncertain in this series (as in real life), and Alex, while clearly brilliant, doesn’t know anything more than the agents he’s assigned with. As in, yay for adult competence! He saves everyone, but only once he’s willing to admit that he doesn’t know very much and so approaches each new thing with caution and humility. The story line also flows very naturally, making the transition from rainy London to the swamps of Florida and eventually the Russian Arctic Circle very natural. One of my pet peeves is “crazy” bad guys who are really just deluded idiots; this one is genuinely crazy, so he’s creepy, but he acts like you’d expect a lunatic to act, with unexpected logic, especially regarding his treatment of Alex. And the supporting minions are developed well enough that they supplement the performance, by treating his insanity as normal. And yes, that will only make sense once you’ve read the book. 🙂 In short, the author has figured out what makes a good horror story, and applied the principles to his spy tale. He also discusses, subtly, several adult themes of women in the workforce, pride going before a fall, nuclear ethics, manipulation of the media, and security systems and their effectiveness being based on the people running them. These are positive because as an adult I enjoyed finding something to think about over the course of the book, and they are subtle enough that a kid could miss them entirely.
NEGATIVE: This is the darkest book in the series, in my opinion. Usually, authors forget to make the minions behave as if they’ve been minions for a long time, and the illusion of craziness is broken. Horowitz does a good job here of making it very real and therefore very scary. And something like seven different horrific ways to die are presented. Two bad words; many action scenes including bad guy sends minions to their death among the alligators, several life-threatening scenes where a young person is in danger of being electrocuted, eaten alive by sharks, chomped on my mechanical teeth, blown up, nuclear poisoning, ripped in pieces, etc –not graphic, and thereby more terrifying; our hero is unkind to a deformed minion (who wants him chopped in pieces); one stereotypical macho American guy who does stupidly risky things; and several characters consume alcohol liberally and one gets raving drunk.
OVERVIEW: four stars, because as a kids book it’s really rather more mature than it should be, with regard to the creepiness and violence levels. Otherwise, though, it’s very well crafted and though provoking.