Stormbreaker: What more can you want?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews Anthony Horowitz Alex Rider 1. StormbreakerStormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz

You’re never too young to die…

After a friend recommended the Alex Rider books, and the movie adaptation pricked my interest, I settled down with Stormbreaker, the first of what is (currently) a nine-book series. Alex is a fourteen year old English schoolboy who wakes early one morning to find that Ian Rider, his uncle and guardian since his parents’ deaths, has been killed in a car accident. It’s not long before the truth emerges: Ian wasn’t a banker at all, but a high-ranking spy for MI6 who was killed in the line of duty. Now Alex himself has been asked to fill his uncle’s shoes, as a lifetime of mountain-climbing, foreign languages, martial arts training and other unusual activities suddenly becomes clear to the young teen.

Ian had been undercover as a security guard at Sayle Enterprises, the company of a Lebanese businessman named Herod Sayle who plans to ship out thousands of cutting-edge computers to schools all around Britain. It sounds like the gift of a great philanthropist, but MI6 are suspicious and Ian’s death only confirms their fears. Where does Alex fit into all this? The first prize in a Sayle-run competition is for a young girl or boy to be the first to try out the new Stormbreaker computer, and MI6 want Alex to take the place of the real competition winner in order for him to do some snooping. Alex has no choice – if he doesn’t comply, the government will deport his beloved housekeeper Jack Starbright back to the United States.

So undercover he goes, armed with some clever gadgets (a zit cream that melts through metal, a yo-yo with a nylon string and a rather extraordinary Game Boy) in order to investigate the strange individual that is Herod Sayle (who comes complete with dangerous pets, larger-than-life henchmen, and a tragic back-story of his own).

When attention turned from boy-wizards to spy-kids after the success of Robert Rodriguez’s movie Spy Kids, the market was suddenly flooded with demands for high-tech, fast-paced, savvy young spies, as seen with the likes of Kim Possible, Agent Cody Banks, the X’s and so on. The story may not even be remotely plausible, but Anthony Horowitz has successfully jumped onto the spy-kids bandwagon and run wild with it. Alex is a smart, likeable kid and the plot so breathlessly fast-paced that any discrepancies in the story are effortlessly glossed over. The villains are villainous, the evil plot is nefarious, and the henchmen have names like Nadia Vole and Mr Grin (thanks to a knife-throwing accident at the circus, he sports a scar that pulls his face into a perpetual smile) — what more can you want? With practically every chapter ending on a cliff-hanger, this is a perfect book to try out on a reluctant reader.

If there is one thing that bothered me slightly, it’s that Alex is a little too good to be true. I brought the martial arts and the physicality of the teenager, but when Alex bests Sayle in a snooker game or spouts a reel of computer jargon to Mr Blunt, my suspension of disbelief was stretched somewhat. Oh come on, I hear you say — in a story filled with giant jellyfish, submarines and teenage espionage, what’s the big deal? In my opinion, it’s fine — no, necessary — that in a book like this there are wild plot turns, but it needs to be balanced with a grounded, realistic protagonist that the reader can relate to. Alex makes too few mistakes during the course of the story (there are a few slips of the tongue, but nothing too serious) and at times displays superhuman skills, all of which distance him a little from the average reader. Looking at our culture’s typical heroes, our favourites always seem to be the ones that slip up now and then, chastise themselves, have physical limits: Indiana Jones, John McClain, Batman — we like our heroes dark, fallible, and human. Am I expecting too much from a story that’s meant to be pure entertainment? Probably, but it’s also true that we never really get inside Alex’s head, particularly as to his relationships with (what we suppose) are the two most important people in his life — Jack and Ian — and as such, he remains a little distant. However, this may change in future books, as it does seem that Horowitz is laying down seeds that will come to fruition in later books — I expect to see a lot more from Jack Starbright, Mrs Jones and Yassen Gregorovich (the Russian assassin that killed Ian Rider) in future books.

Other than that, I have little to complain about. The Alex Rider series is all set to be a great reading experience, and Point Blank is next on my reading list.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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