I’ve just finished #150 Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz and I really don’t think I have anything new to say about this, having posted about Stormbreaker and Point Blanc, the first two books in the Alex Rider series. Still, it seems fitting that I posted about the first one during last year’s Children’s Book Week and I’m finishing the third (and the last on the list) as this year’s CBW draws to a close.
Alex Rider is just 14, and yet he’s already been drawn into working for MI6. Going undercover, he foils plots to take over or destroy the world, aided and abetted by a series of quirky gadgets and his almost superhuman abilities. Skeleton Key draws on motifs established in earlier books but works well as a stand alone. In this story, Alex faces his toughest challenge yet: will his longing for an ordinary life be his undoing?
Let’s talk about spoilers
I try to write these reviews without any spoilers. This is difficult as different people find different details spoilery. Broadly, I try not to reveal anything that isn’t on the back of the book (you’ll find quite a lot of spoilers there, sadly) or that would reduce the suspense, prematurely untangle a mystery or otherwise ruin the ending or the good bits in the middle.
The Alex Rider books are difficult for me because on the one hand, the broad arcs are quite predictable but the details are not. This is to Horowitz’s credit, in a sense, because I do like to be surprised. However, I find the Alex Rider books to be like listening to a toddler tell you about their plans for the future. In both cases, the technology is unbelievable and the whole thing hangs together with only a thin thread joining it. I daren’t pull to hard on any one element in the story as the plot and locations jump around so much that simply mentioning one exploit could strip the previous pages of tension. Plus, I can’t figure out how to mention one exploit since I can’t really explain why Alex is in any of these situations or why he reacts as he does except that he is both astonishingly well trained and doesn’t always think things through.
How do you like your heroes?
Alex is pretty near perfect, except that he’s sort of intolerable, and I just don’t care. I appreciate that I’m not the target market – I may get K to read these as he was once a teenage boy and still likes films where stuff blows up – but I’m not that interested in perfection of either gender. It tends to be stultifying and entirely context driven. For example, Alex seems to be able to context switch flawlessly, operating smoothly as a junior spy or a school kid, but either set of behaviour would be completely inappropriate in the other environment. Another story with this character in would be the one where the child pushed too far too fast by demanding adults turns to drink to drown their perceived imperfections and failures. I’d believe that story, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.
Alex is perfectly suited to handle everything the world throws at him, and the world only throws things at him that he can handle. This is a real risk with any long running hero if their competence is repeatedly tested in so many outlandish ways. The Harry Potter series were at risk of this too, and dealt with it well, I think, by ‘going dark’ and throwing things at Harry he couldn’t properly handle and having him react to failure and loss. Alex, at this stage, is unformed. He is a vessel for his experiences and rarely seems to act on any emotion. He gets annoyed with his handlers but that’s about it. I’d be interested to know if he develops over the following books, but I really don’t think I can be bothered to read them.
All in all, this was another book in the vein of the previous novels, and I would recommend it to Bond fans and action movie fans who don’t usually like reading. The pace, plotting and devices are very similar. That said, I haven’t read any of the Bond novels so I may be doing Flemming a disservice with the comparison.