Attitude: Some Care Needed → Unobjectionable
In Brief: More of the same from Alex Rider. Page-turning adventure stuff, pleasing to boys, dramatic and well-researched, but without any particular characteristic to set it apart from the rest of the series or from other books in the genre. Alex selflessly puts his life at risk to confound an evil scheme with no hope of reward. A crook uses his apparent (but unreal) conversion to Christianity as a mask for his continued criminal schemes. A thought-provoking if disturbing kidnap scene. Alex continues to fail to grow, but has at his disposal a tremendous ability to think and act his way out of dangerous situations, coupled with an amazing stamina and determination: A "Boys' Own" Boy.
Series: Alex Rider
Age Range: Young Teens
- The usual cast plus...
- Harry Bulman is a shady journalist who wants to make money by publishing Alex's life as a teenage secret agent.
- Desmond McCain is a rich crooked businessman turned ostentatious Christian with a knack for providing rapid emergency aid worldwide when crisis strikes.
- Myra Beckett is McCain's assistant, a rather mannish woman, a scientist who taught herself to fly from first principles, and who has a macabre taste for suffering.
- Leonard Straik is an unethical scientist specialising in toxic plants and animals.
Alex agrees to help MI6 in return for their ridding him of a journalist who's learned about his secret life. He infiltrates the secret laboratories of Leonard Straik and discovers that the scientist is involved in a plan with crook-turned-philanthropist Desmond McCain to provoke massive crop failure by chemical means. They capture him and transport him to the African setting for their scheme where they leave him to die.
A slight aside before we launch into the book itself. Based in London, I generally review books in their UK editions. On this occasion I was sent a review copy by the book's American publishers. Now, books for young people are sometimes edited very slightly as they cross the Atlantic to smooth over differences which might be jarring or even incomprehensible to “foreign” readers. So “bleachers” becomes “benches” and “freshman” becomes “first-year”. And the same in reverse. I don't really have an opinion on this, although I do object to the pointless retitling of books (“The Sorceror's Stone”, “The Golden Compass”, etc.) And I strongly object to the up-to-dateing of books written in an older age, especially when that form of editing is driven more by political correctness than by any concern for the intelligibility of the text.
So here I am reviewing a book written by a UK-based English author, set mostly in the UK and with English characters. But in an American edition. And I notice this very slight editing creeping in. At one point, a character says: “You do the math.” Which is hardly objectionable, although as a British English speaker he'd have said “You do the maths.” Somewhere else, it's suggested that a character dial “911” instead of “999” which is the emergency call number in the UK. But then we see a London-based British journalist going to draw money out of his British bank account in London. In dollars. This particular change was so out of place that I actually assumed it was a plot device: that there would be some reason later for which he needed dollars. But it seems not. It's as though a US editor simply did a global search-and-replace on the book's text to translate “Pound” into “Dollar”. This seems nonsensical and goes so far as to be jarring in the other direction, offering a mild insult to young American readers who will surely be aware that the currency in Britain is called “Pounds” even if they weren't aware that you dialled 999 in the UK to phone the Police.
As to the book itself: it's so similar to the others in the series that I was a little disappointed. It fits in far too well with the slightly ironic formula I outlined in my review of the series as a whole and seems to squander the opportunity to kickstart the series afresh. One doesn't expect all that much from the Alex Rider series. (I can hear the publisher's marketing department telling the author: “Don't change a winning formula”). But there's been a bit of a hiatus in the Alex Rider timeline and the last time we heard from him in Snakehead he was keeping away from MI6. Perhaps now was the opportunity to go in a fresh direction or at least to introduce some new elements or players, but really this book mostly retreads old ground.
That said, since his old enemy-cum-ally Yassen Gregorovitch is no longer around to help or hinder him, Alex gets help late on from a different direction, an agent from a slightly surprising country's secret service who shows heroism equal to Alex's own although he doesn't last long enough to make it into the next book. Still it's nice to see a different player on the board (the country and the character).
Sabina Pleasure is back, along with her journalist father Edward and her mother. At this stage I consider Sabina's presence good news for Alex. She's rarely around for long enough to matter too much, but she represents some kind of stability in Alex's life and the possibility of an outside influence beyond the kindly but ineffectual Jack Starbright. (Incidentally, the investigative journalist whose importunings prompt Alex's appeal to MI6 for help suggests a rather sleazy angle on the household containing a young woman and a teenage boy, unrelated. But the series is having none of that and the journalist doesn't last long enough to matter: he's merely a plot catalyst.) Furthermore, Edward Pleasure, again never on stage for long, is something of a father figure to Alex who's lacking pretty much everything in that direction. And since the first act involves Alex rescuing him and his daughter heroically from a Scottish loch, his gratitude's bound to show itself later if the books carry on. And although we see very little of his wife he does at least have one, making theirs just about the only normal and intact family in the series.
The heart of this book, and of the series, is in the right place. Alex is an unassuming hero, if occasionally impetuous. He finds himself in dangerous situations inadvertently or on account of MI6, but gives everything he's got. He's got no real chance of reward or recognition, nor does he seek it. In this book, indeed, one of the drivers behind his continued involvement with MI6 is a quid pro quo where he'll do their dirty work while they get rid of a journalist who wants to publish Alex's story. He unselfishly saves the world or, as in this book's slightly lower stakes, foils a far-reaching plot. But only wants to return to the normal life of school trips and homework. I do have concerns over certain of the decisions and attitudes in the series, but compared to, say, the Cherub series, Alex Rider is a fair bit further up the slope towards the moral high ground.
In Alex Rider, the author has managed to portray an old-fashioned “Boys' Own” hero: manly, not easily overcome or outmanoeuvred, not allowing his tiredness or weakness to overcome him when there's a job to do, not seeking fame and fortune, as ready to play a hand of cards for high stakes as to base jump from a tall building with a makeshift parachute. But that same hero is a modern-day schoolboy, disliking homework, happy with his bike and his games console, and enjoying the company of girls of his own age. True, he's sometimes a bit too competent (a fact explained away when necessary by his uncle's covert preparation of the boy for the job he's now doing). But we can live with that.
The two principal villains of the piece are pretty much the usual suspects: an unethical scientist who specialises in plant and animal poisons and who keeps a hothouse full of them which is almost built for Alex Rider to have to break out of; and a criminal businessman whose feigned repentance and conversion to ostentatious Christianity gives him the facade he needs to conceal his real designs. The former is hardly worth a mention: mad scientists are ten-a-penny. The latter needs just a little more consideration simply because over-the-top Christianity — or religious-inspired scheming of any sort — is just too easy a target. In this case, at least, there's no question of a tortured soul using a distorted view of Christianity as justification for some wrongdoing. McCain's a straightforward liar: no repentance; no conversion; merely using the trappings of a prisoner-turned-to-religion to gain people's confidence and give him the entree he needs into the world of Emergency Aid.
Although most of the story runs on autopilot, a scene in which Alex is kidnapped and transported in plain sight makes a wryly interesting point about public attitudes to the severely disabled. It's actually mildly disturbing to read but certainly makes for something of a discussion afterwards. (Spoiler: Alex is drugged and made up to appear as though mentally and physically disabled and is transported in a wheelchair, perfectly conscious but unable to make himself understood by anyone. The kidnappers judge correctly that any bystanders' reactions of sympathy tinged with mild disgust will mean that they won't look too closely.) Sadly, after this thought-provoking device we're back to a monologuing villain, a sadistic if brilliant henchwoman, and a chance to outline the plot as Alex hangs suspended over a river of vicious crocodiles.
Overall, then, this book fits easily into the Alex Rider world and won't tax anyone's imagination or reading abilities too much. The author's research gives us facts and figures about the possibilities of genetically engineered crop diseases and the destructive possibilities of large dams. Alex himself remains competent, and you almost wish he might just fail in a way that didn't seem like it needed to happen for the plot to succeed.
- Genetic crop manipulation as a criminal device
- Feigning a religious Conversion to gain people's confidence
- Attitudes towards disabled people
“You have annoyed me very much, Alex. I tried to kill you when you were in Scotland, and it would have been a lot better if I had. Your activity at Greenfields very nearly brought to an end an operation that has taken me five years and a great deal of money to develop. Thanks to you my name is now known to MI6 and that will make my future life more difficult. And, added to that, you are a very rude and unpleasant boy, and all in all, I think you deserve to die.” He turned to Myra Beckett. “I know you enjoy this, my love, so you can stay to the end. I'll be interested to know how many minutes he manages to hang on before he falls. I somehow doubt that he'll beat the record.”
Sunday 15th November 2009