Publisher: Walker Books
Pages: 249 – including afterword (Paperback)
Series: Alex Rider #1
MISSION 1: STORMBREAKER
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning it’s never good news.”
When his guardian dies in suspicious circumstances, fourteen-year-old Alex Rider finds his world turned upside down.
Within days he’s gone from schoolboy to superspy. Forcibly recruited into MI6, Alex has to take part in gruelling SAS training exercises; then, armed with his own special set of gadgets, he’s off on his first mission. But Alex soon finds himself in mortal danger. It looks as if his first assignment may well be his last. . .
Another ‘low four’ for this one. I enjoyed it, I’ll read the next couple of sequels at least, but there was a lot that held me back from liking it more. This is (mostly) more my fault than the book’s which is, for the most part, a high quality action-adventure spy-story very much in the vein of a ‘teenage James Bond’ that has fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unfortunately I’ve never been that into the James Bond films, found Casino Royale to be a total snooze-fest, and have never had any inclination whatsoever to pick up an Ian Flemming book. These damning personal defects aside I would probably have gotten on with this book a lot better had I read it when it came out in 2000 (when I would have been eleven or twelve) – not just because I’d have been both less picky and in the right age bracket but because, only twelve years later, a lot of the premise comes off as absurdly dated.
This isn’t Horowitz’s fault of course – in 2000 many teenagers in the UK didn’t have their own mobile phones, 24-hour internet access was an incredible novelty, and a gift of a single computer to a school may well have been a big deal (my primary school replaced the library with its first computer room to celebrate the millennium – the bookshelves were moved to a wide corridor – before that we had a single computer in each class that we were never allowed to actually use). None of that is too unrealistic, but it feels it – and I still can’t come up with a reasonable explanation beyond ‘plot’ why Alex wasn’t equipped with a mobile phone along with the rest of his gadgets. It’s also so very, very, pre 9/11 that it almost breaks belief some of the things Alex can get away with without getting immediately shot dead by security forces. Again, not Horowitz’s fault but it’s something I also can’t help but notice. That said the target audience of 8+ is not going to care too much – except probably the mobile phone thing.
As I’ve probably given away the plot revolves around high-tech computer systems but otherwise it’s very James bond. There’s vehicle chases, near death experiences, dangerous wildlife being kept as pets, labyrinthine underground lairs, death traps, smuggling, and assassins. This book is chock full of action and I’ll say this for it – it does a much better job than most books in making you forget that Alex has to survive and fearing for the protagonists safety, at least until after the fifth near-death escape. If you’re after a jam-packed action-filled book that’s a nice easy read this definitely fits the bill. Where it fell down for me though was in also importing the dismissive sexism and xenophobic stereotypes that characterise the adult spy genre.
It’s not so much offensive as it is simply lazy – the assassin is Russian, the evil sidekick is a German woman, the bully during Alex’s training has a ‘funny foreign accent’ (though I expect we’ll be seeing him in future books as a goody), and the big-bad is a short, fat, ‘slimy‘ middle-eastern man with eyes like frogspawn who eats dog-meat. Better still his backstory involves an American family ‘rescuing’ him from his own poverty in Beirut and bringing him to London without giving a single fuck for the rest of his family. This probably wouldn’t bother me if I was a child but as an adult I am both more culturally aware than I was, and have seen these ingredients used so many times that I’m quite frankly bored with them. That the villain’s motivation is ‘I was a victim of racist bullying’ doesn’t really mitigate the whole lazy stereotyping that went into characterising him before and after. And then the sexism, again part of the genre but I have to ask – why? Why do action-adventure stories have to have only strong male characters and sideline women into purely maternal or ‘evil sidekick’ roles (thankfully no shoe-horned love interest here)? Why in a novel set in 2000 is the only reference to female spies ‘we have to send in someone who won’t be noticed [. . .] We were considering sending down a woman. She might be able to slip in as a secretary or receptionist’. Even the female in charge of the section only provides a ‘motherly’ role, fretting about Alex while her male partner is flat and emotionless, dedicated to the cause no matter the cost.
I’m not angry, I know it sounds it but honestly I’m not. I’m not even offended. I’m just tired. I know this book is essentially a tribute to James Bond but. . . it’s just predictable. Of course the female sidekick is German, the contract killer is Russian – they always are.
That said, and I know that’s come off as really negative sounding, I liked the book. It’s not a standout but I enjoyed it and I want to read the next few books as well. Alex has the potential to be an interesting character – I don’t think he quite got there in this book, he seemed way too detached and unaffected by his uncle’s death and made some really obviously stupid mistakes (and the bit of me that volunteers at Natural History museums resents a portuguese man-of-war being repeatedly refered to as a ‘jellyfish’), but he’s very fun to read about in the action scenes and as I said, the potential is there – I like that he’s not into the whole spy thing but just wants to be left alone.
So yeah. . . a good book, one that I’m sure lots of people who aren’t me will love, but one that shares many of the traits that always make me feel excluded and dismissed by this genre. Hopefully I’ll enjoy the next book a bit more because, with a few improvements, this is a series I could really get into.