* Prices may differ from that shown
This is 19th book I have read by Robert Muchamore, and I honestly can't wait for number 20, although that will be in another series - Henderson's Boys. Muchamore started out writing specifically for teenage boys - to fill a gap he saw in the market - and his books have been wildly successful with his target audience. I can understand why - he seems to really get teenagers - or perhaps he is just like me and has never completely grown up himself. His books are full of action and adventure, but they also confront a lot of common issues for teens and offer real insight on relationships and growing up.
Whatever Muchamore may have intended when he started writing these books, his audience has grown far beyond the original target group, and his writing seems to have grown with it. I have enjoyed every one of his books, but it is obvious, he has become a more polished writer as worked his way through these series. Although still slightly more popular with boys, the gap is closing fast, and in addition to teens, more and more adults are reading his books as well. There has been some debate as to whether Muchamore's books are suitable for young children. They do tackle some very adult issues, but in an incredibly positive manner. Out of 19 books I can think of a couple of scenes that might be questionable for very young children - most notably a graphic account of plane crash. But by and large, I see these books as a positive influence for children, although I would suggest parental screening for very young children. In all honesty though, these books just are not written to a 7 or 8 year old audience, and I think by the time a child is old enough to really get into the books, they will be mature enough to handle them.
After the previous graphic description of a plane crash - the picture on the front of this book doesn't look terribly reassuring. This book is p[art of a three book series, with the final book due for publication in 2013 so obviously I can only speak for the first two, but there is very little to concern a parent in either. There is violence, which is to be expected in this type of book, and there is torture. There is some reference to the illegal sex trade, but nothing graphic. There have been some complaints about Muchamore's use of curse words in his books, but I don't believe there is a five year old in the western world who has not heard words like S*** before, and I really don't understand all the fuss. If my 7 year old wanted to read this - I wouldn't have any major problems with it other than the possibility of being asked what a prostitute is. If you don't already know - you won't figure it out here.
This story takes off where People's Republic ended, and is very much a part of a set. You could read this without reading the prior book - it does recap a bit - but you would still be missing out. It does offer a limited level of conclusion - which I feel book one did not - but it does not feel anything like a finished story and I hate the fact that I'll have to wait a year to read the end.
I have described this series too many times to go deeply into the overall theme, but in short, these books are based on the idea of children working with a shadowy government agency known as CHERUB and acting as teenage spies. This has a bit in common with Alex Rider and will appeal to many of the same fans - but perhaps a few years later. Originally it was primarily male main characters, but Muchamore has really developed the strength of his female characters and they take a larger role now - so if you know a teen looking for an Alex Rider style books with girls - this is it.
As with any Muchamore book, the best part is his character development. He creates realistic three dimensional characters, and a number of characters who cross backwards and forwards on the line between good and evil. There are a few complete psychopaths in this book, but also some rather likable figures who do evil things ---- both among the criminal cartel and the American intelligence agency CHERUB is working with. The heroes also have faults and this makes them more likable in my opinion. This book brings back Ryan, Amy and Ning in starring roles as well as an old favourite from the 1st series, CHERUB instructor Yosyp Kazakov. To make matters even better Kazakov has to work with an American - and he isn't fond of Yanks after his younger brother was killed by an American missile in Afghanistan many years ago.
The story jumps back and forth between the CHERUB agents, including Ning's Basic training and Ryan, the grandson of the head of a multinational criminal empire. Ryan had befriended Ethan before and continues to use his friendship online to try to extract more information from the vulnerable child, all the while Ryan is desperately hoping to keep Ethan alive as well. We see Ethan's life in Kyrgyzstan and Ning ends up returning to place she nearly lost life escaping. She is clearly frightened but willing to face fear to help others. Her quiet fearful acceptance of the risks fits well the character Muchamore has drawn. I think Ning is his strongest female lead yet. Meanwhile - the people who killed Ethan's mother are coming after him - can CHERUB save him ? Ethan may be more resourceful then he appears though - and he'll have to be.
Once again this book maintains a sense of continuity with the previous books, while keeping a completely original tale. There is plenty of action and adventure and quite a few changes in location as well. My only disappointment in this book is that the ending was not conclusive enough for me - some business is left unfinished - but that of course is what book 3 is for.