I've enjoyed all of the books in this series so far, but I didn't think the third was quite a believable, or nearly as intense. Book 3, Secret Army, is set in Britain, and focuses on the training regime of the young recruits, so I suppose it simply can not have the same level of adrenaline as a book about missions behind enemy lines. Book 4, Grey Wolves sees Henderson's team back in occupied France on a mission to disrupt the U- Boat missions in 1941. Bringing the story back behind enemy lines really brings all the excitement and adventure back into this series and this is a book I found very hard to put down.
In all honesty, I am not in the target audience for this book. This book is intended for ages 12- 17, but I really feel that this book can offer every bit as much to adults. It is in fact, one of the best thrillers I have ever read. I tried this series because my son and I loved the Young James Bond series so much, and he quite likes Alex Rider as well. I quickly decided this series was just a bit to mature for my seven year old son, but once I got started I couldn't stop reading these. I am very disappointed that the post has arrived today and my copy of book 5 is not here yet. I can't wait to read the next book in this series, and I'm gutted that book five is the last book in print. I'll have to wait until September to read book 6.
This book is classed as young adult, but I believe this is only because the main characters are quite young. I would class this as a spy book, or thriller, somewhere between Charlie Higson's books and Ian Fleming's. I do feel this would suit an older audience than Alex Rider. Although I loved the Young James Bond, and enjoyed Ian Fleming's Casino Royale as well, I wouldn't really say I have particular interest in espionage books. In fact it is quite difficult for me to nail any specific genre that I prefer, but I am a picky reader, and what I want is truly gifted writing. Muchamore is really gifted in this regard with an ability to bring another time and place to life with descriptions that give you enough detail to bring each scene alive, without bogging you down in the mundane.
This is a fast paced, high adrenaline adventure that never really lets up after the first couple of chapters, and very much keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. There is violence which is fairly graphically described, and made all the more horrific by the fact that there are not many clear cut "good guys" and "bad guys". Muchamore has a real gift for making the enemy human as well, and you do feel each death as the loss of a human life, not just as victory for the home team. The Germans are clearly the enemy in this book, and Britain is in a desperate war they can not lose. But most Germans are drawn as decent people, some very kind, and others more indifferent - in others words - like real people rather than one dimensional bad guys. This does make for a much more moving and believable story, but I feel this sets a very useful example as well.
I was brought up on war stories - some of them quite gruesome, but I was always taught that there was no glory in ending a human life. My grandfather always saw the other side as human, and this meant he behaved as a human too. He taught us that when a group of people is able to see another group as sub human - it makes them capable of turning into animals themselves. My grandfather was deeply affected by what he saw in the concentration camps - so much so that he never spoke of it in detail, and even many years later the subject choked him up. But even so, he never blamed an entire nation, and was able to take action I am very proud of in saving German women from Russian troops as well. Again he said - the Russians were able to do things men should never do because they viewed their victims as less than human. Northern Ireland has had no shortage of people who could do things one should not do to another human. I think the ability to always see even an enemy as a human, with virtues as well as vices, and thoughts and feelings much like our own would go a long way in curbing such excesses. For this reason I especially like these books. I believe they show young people how to look at things from both sides, and to think of an enemy as a person with feelings too. Of course this is just fiction, but when my son is old enough to read these books it will create a good opportunity to discuss these things.
I am very hesitant to give too much detail on this book as I detest spoilers, so I will keep the plot summary to a very minimum. In short, this book is about an adult British agent who leads a team primarily composed of children behind enemy lines in occupied France. Henderson was originally placed in situation in which using children was the least objectionable of all alternatives, but seeing the success of youth working as agents, he has now recruited and trained a team of orphans, primarily French who were in Britain as refugees to work undercover and help him sabotage the U Boats.
Children were used for one reason - no one suspects them, but I think Muchamore has touched on something in this book as well about the nature of youth. We see a 13 year old as a child, but it wasn't always so, and at one time many 13 year olds would have fought and lived fairly adult lives. Teenagers are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, and I think often end up in trouble simply because they aren't allowed to function as full members of society, at a level many are very capable of. Perhaps if we gave youth meaningful employment, training, or education we would have a lot less problems. I can certainly see young readers really relating to the characters in this book, who experience the same difficulties as any other teen, but also are forced to take on very adult roles.
While this book is a spy thriller - it is long way from the James Bond Films. There are no high tech gadgets here. I think the most top secret equipment was a button that concealed a suicide pill - something that did exist at the time. The primary weapons of the spies in this book are their wits. Intelligence is used to outwit the enemy, crack codes and plan sabotage, but again this is kept to reasonable levels. The Germans are not a bunch of bumbling idiots, but they are overworked and stretched too thin as resources are sent to the Russian front. There are battles, and at times a smaller group may overcome a larger one, but only through stealth and cunning, we don't have any super soldiers here who can whip a dozen villains with one hand behind their back. These factors combine to make this the most believable spy novel I have ever read, and very much on par with Ian Fleming with a less sex.
The very best part of this book is Muchamore's character development though, as he has created very believable three dimensional characters. Henderson, around whom these stories revolve, although he is never quite as drawn into the tale as the children has both strengths and weaknesses. He's a bit of a drinker when he is on safe ground, and a terrible womaniser to boot, to the point of being a bit of a dirty old goat. But he has heart and a conscience, and truly cares about his young recruits. He is brave and dashing in action but more of a drunken sod in peace. This makes him more believable in my eyes though. I prefer a flawed hero to a knight in shining armour.
Likewise the children in this story have both strengths and weaknesses. Some are braver than others, one in fact is often terrified, but then I always felt true heroism is the ability to rise above fear, not the absence of it. The girls are cast in strong and capable roles rather than damsels in distress, but they have their weaknesses as well, including just a bit more mercy which can complicate matters. Most are primarily good, with a few vices or insecurities, much as most children are primarily good. There always has to be one bad apple though, and even a sociopath can be useful in times of war. In this case, it is Luc, a completely amoral young man. Whatever heart Luc had died years before when his brother was killed and Luc is kept alive now only by hatred. But so much hatred consumes the carrier, and Luc has been consumed by his hatred and desire for revenge. He enjoys killing and causing pain - a fact that disturbs Henderson - but Luc is also very good at what he does. The absence of emotion leaves him without fear, and he can act in the most horrific manner, but which in fact yields the correct results. He isn't likable, but I found him a fascinating character that added a whole new dimension to this book. There is very strong psychological element to this book as well as all the action.
Just as their is one character on the British side who leans very heavily towards evil, there is one German who is true villain as well. This is a terribly warped and twisted officer in the Gestapo, but I felt this was fair enough. While most people combine good and evil, there will always be a few people who are almost purely evil, and the Gestapo seemed to be real magnet for this type of person. The Gestapo in general are cast as more cruel and ruthless than the ordinary German soldier, and I think is is historically very accurate, so I don't have any problem with this character being less balanced than most. I believe most real Gestapo agents were likely a bit less balanced as individuals as well.
As much as I love this book, I won't be recommending it for very young children. While the graphic violence does not concern me, there are a few references regarding prostitution I find inappropriate for my seven year old. This book is clearly labeled as "Not suitable for younger readers". In all honesty, they would likely get more from a television film after the watershed, but I still would suggest an age limit of perhaps 10+ for this book. Other than the issues with sex and violence - I really can't see putting any age limits on this book. It is a gripping story that I do think many adults will enjoy every bit as much as younger readers. If you like action and adventure or just a well developed story with very realistic characters then I would suggest giving this series a try. I would strongly advise against reading the Amazon reviews on this book though as I'm afraid one contains a pretty major spoiler. Unfortunately I was uncertain as to which order these books were meant to follow and was reading reviews to try to find out. I don't want to copy the same info I have previously posted, so if you do need the order please see my review of 'Secret Army'. I would also note though, that while books like this are wonderful for motivating boys to read, this book will require a fair level of reading proficiency. It is written at an adult reading level and would not do for a struggling reader.
This book can be purchased from Amazon with prices as low as £2.49 delivered.