Friday, March 6, 2009

A Video Game, In Paperback

Stormbreaker, the Young Adult (YA) spy novel by Anthony Horowitz, fills an airport bookstore's urgent need to stock something to sell to action-loving teens -- and former teens -- who have left their Game Boys at home.

Borrowing heavily from BritSpy genre giants Ian Fleming (James Bond), John LeCarre (George Smiley), and Patrick McGoohan (himself - I mean, John Drake), Stormbreaker introduces 14-year old schoolboy Alex Rider as a reluctant hero whose covert-ops uncle has been killed in action and who is recruited by MI6 to take his uncle's place. He faces prototypical dangers -- the evil mastermind! the mumble-jawed monster man! the security forces on ATVs! the machine guns! the electric fence! the poisonous jellyfish! the plot to destroy the world! Fortunately, Alex has been ruthlessly trained by the MI6 team and tactically equipped by the always-important spy-gadgets supplier, Smithers. I'll never look at zit cream the same way again.

As fast-paced, two-dimensional, and values-free as a second-generation video game, Stormbreaker runs Alex through his harsh basic training and then drops him into an existentialist scenario that only a plot maven could love. There's no way out for Alex but forward through the ordeal; no possible alternative exists but to work at massive personal risk for bland, exploitative spymasters who need him desperately, yet who could care less about his personal survival. This is a bleak vision of teen as imperiled pawn, a joyless executor of the impossible mission that the adults have determined for him.

Good elements of the novel do exist: the taut pacing and animating plot, suitable for alumni of the Hardy Boys series; the economical writing; the Introduction to Existentialism course. It's not that Stormbreaker isn't well-written; rather, it's that there's a dry humorlessness without relief or redemption as the plot moves forward. There's no tubby, loyal friend Chet or other oddball sidekick to color in the human spaces. Even David Brin's Postman, a loner if there ever was one, forms alliances along the way; in contrast, Alex Rider is truly on his own as he fulfills his assigned destiny. In the end, Alex's increasingly bleak life is spared -- if only for the sequel -- when one of his murderous antagonists improbably shoots the other one. Talk about killer endings.

Alex Rider is John Drake without the worldliness; George Smiley without the moral nuance; James Bond without the girls. Now a major motion picture, says the book's cover. I think I'll wait for the Game Boy edition.

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