Reminded me a lot of Matthew Reilly – very effectively writing to a particular market. Clearly the market wasn’t me, but I’m sure Muchamore (Muchamore? Pretty unsubtle subliminal feed in the pseudonym – and if it’s *not* a pseudonym he should have got one) sensibly couldn’t care less about a demographic he was never targeting. Several of the things that turned me off would have been precisely what attracted his young, often initially reluctant readers (that’s a lot of the sell on the flyleaf – “My little Johnny wouldn’t read anything until he got onto this.”) – probably the largest being the deliberately tiny descriptions – why would you want to build a textured picture of a character, like, say, the counsellor, when all the reader wants to know is that she’s a counsellor? Too much background, personality, dress, mood – could get boring. Let alone setting the scene of the office – it’s an office, what more do you want to know? Ironic because these one-dimensional portraits are what kids are taught to avoid as part of creative writing skills in schools, but the very things that many enjoy in action-based movies: so often we want the stereotype, and a context that is deliberately a carbon of other genre films. But I found that particularly hard going – impression/assumption characters and settings. And I suspect there’s a lot of the Mills and Boon magic too: it might look easy to write a formula novel – whether romance or YA – but you try it and see how far you get.
Muchamore keeps a constant supply of just shocking enough incidents to keep the young teen readers in. The text is punctuated with violence, but I suspect sort of wish-fulfilment violence – James is probably just a little harder than his readers: he’ll push things a bit further, fight a bit quicker, join in with some vandalism or theft that they might baulk at. His mother’s death seems to mean as much to him as it would to the readers – which makes no realistic sense, but keeps the focus on incidents rather than something as uninspiring as grief. The wish-fulfilment thing is amped up with the whole becoming a badass daydream, and while he makes a couple of unsubtle dismissals of lazy video-game underachieving lifestyle, he’s careful to never be preachy. There are several dated technology and probably fashion references, also a few too many UK only references – the danger of trying so hard to be relevant is that the window gets smaller. Also a little bit of innocence in imagining the dream institution – where your fridge is stocked with coke and Mars Bars, and it sounds like you’re overhearing some competing 11 year olds when the CEO is saying, “…and we’ve got three pools, and two gyms, and an elevator, and a new dojo…”. The junior James Bond thing is also unsubtly there with frequent nascent casually sexual situations. It seems important for Muchamore to keep James as a good guy at heart, despite being ‘hard’, so we have a little agonising over (and justification of) the dirty choices you have to make for the freedoms we hold dear – but the flag-waving is kept well below typically US levels. No, the core, again, is wish-fulfilment – even down to the happy-ending/revenge epilogues.
It’s also, significantly, all about the sequels. Stated cynically – it’s a transparent money-making technique. Stated positively – it’s a chance that non-readers will become regular readers. Neutrally – hey, a guy’s just making a living: I hardly make every work-related decision on the basis of artistic integrity. The fact I read the book at all was purely because I have to teach it (i.e. make some money): I know there are better books for me to be spending time on, but a guy’s gotta make a living.