Thursday, 31 March 2011
Review: Scorpia Rising by Anthony Horowitz (spoiler free)
Alex Rider wants his life back. But when you're the world's most successful spy, there's only one way out. Alex's final mission will be the deadliest of all.
One bullet. One life. The end starts here.
The 4th September 2000 was a very important day for children's books, and more particularly for boy-friendly fiction. That day saw the publication of Stormbreaker, the very first outing for Alex Rider, Anthony Horowitz's reluctant teen spy, and now more than a decade later the ninth and final book of the series is released today. I personally believe that the impact that this series has had on children's publishing is immeasurable, not only due to its own success, but also the plethora of similarly themed stories that have been published (and continue to be published) since. I personally know many boys who have been turned on to reading by the Alex Rider series, and I am sure that teachers and librarians around the country have had very similar experiences.
Today sees the release of Scorpia Rising, the final book in the series (read the first chapter here), and it really doesn't seem like ten years since we were introduced to Alex, yet even though a decade has passed for us, the time period covered by the series is much shorter - not much more than a year, in fact. In Scorpia Rising Alex is now 15, and he hasn't heard from MI6 in five months, giving him the opportunity to settle into the life a normal teenager should be living, concentrating on his first year of GCSEs, being made captain of the school football team, and even finding himself being given the part of Teen Angel in the school's production of Grease. With every silver lining, there is usually some kind of dark cloud in tow - in this case Alex's long time carer and closest friend, Jack Starbright is getting itchy feet. She rarely sees Alex any more as he has now managed to build a healthy social life with friends his own age, she questions whether he needs her any more, and there is some pressure for her to return to the USA where her father is quite ill. Anthony Horowitz has made it very clear that this will be the final Alex Rider book, and this starts to become quite clear as we read these early scenes between Alex and Jack - time and events have changed them both and now it is possibly time to move on.
I say 'early scenes', but this is a little misleading - we don't actually get to read any kind of scene featuring Alex until page 129! Sounds a little crazy that we don't get to see our hero until almost a third of the book has past, but therein I feel lies the cleverness in Mr Horowitz's writing, and also helps make this book the best in the series so far. Those first 128 pages are devoted entirely to Alex's enemies, following them as they devise a scheme that will net Scorpia a fortune, whilst at the same time enabling them to destroy the teenage boy that has been a thorn in their side for so long. In order to assist them in their dastardly plan they enlist the help of another of Alex's enemies, a character we first met much earlier in the series - and no, I'm not going to say who it is, or even which book it was in, as that would just spoil the surprise for you. All I will say is that this person hates Alex more than life itself and will do everything within his/her power to destroy him. By devoting this much time to the set-up, Mr Horowitz created in me an ever-growing nervous tension, as I started to wonder just how Alex would survive this final mission.
This tension was heightened by the fact that Mr Horowitz had previously stated that a character that had been in all of the previous eight books would die in Scorpia Rising. A little knowledge can be very painful - every time a key character seemed in jeopardy I found my heart beginning to race, fearing that this would be the moment I had to say goodbye to an old friend..... and then somehow that person would survive, my heart rate would return to normal, only to accelerate again a little later. The author does this to us several times, making the scene where a character dies even more hard-hitting, and also very much emotional. I read a large portion of Scorpia Rising whilst on a train heading into London to listen to Mr Horowitz give a lecture for the National Literacy Trust, and as I read this scene I am not ashamed to admit that I had tears in my eyes. I very much doubt that I will be the only Alex Rider fan who sheds a tear at this point in the story. I told Mr Horowitz as much when I had the chance to talk to him, and I got the impression that he had found it an emotional scene to write.
As well as the changing relationship between Alex and Jack, there are many other elements throughout Scorpia Rising that indicate that this will be the concluding episode of the series, long before we get to the final chapters. Before Alex even appears in the book we are told that Alan Blunt will soon no loner be in his senior MI6 position. Somewhat topically, a new prime minister is in power and has decided to shake up the intelligence services, and his discovery that MI6 has been using a teenager on missions was the final nail in Blunt's professional coffin. However, with the end of his career in sight will Blunt worry about the consequences of using Alex one more time or will he finally see sense? Can he possibly stoop any lower than has has before? Another popular MI6 character throughout the series has been the jocular gadget inventor, Smithers. Yet again he is able to lend Alex a hand with a useful 'toy' when he finds himself having to go to Cairo, and for the first time in the series we actually get to see a little more of Smithers as he goes out into the 'field'. This leads on to an incredible revelation about the portly technical wizard, and also the unveiling of his greatest ever invention.
We have seen a lot happen to Alex over the course of the series, and he has matured faster than any teen of his age should, but in Scorpia Rising we see him have to cope with the violent death of someone he knows, and the gamut of emotions he experiences following this - numbness; pain; anger; hunger for revenge... we really do see his raw emotion and with this comes a fatalism that we haven't witnessed before in Alex. In the past it was all about survival - by the end of this book it seems he doesn't care whether he survives or not!
I really do think that this is my favourite book of the whole series - it has all the best elements of the previous eight including the tight plotting, the twists and turns, the great action scenes, totally evil villains.... you name it, Scorpia Rising has it. However, I am sure that there will be fans out there who do not share this opinion. The expectation felt by fans before reading the final book in a popular long-running series is always pretty extreme, and may will have their own ideas of how they want the series to finish. I expect you will read a number of reviews as glowing as mine, and probably an similar number of negative reviews with fans complaining about one issue or another. I would suggest you read the book for yourself and make your own mind up, and whatever your feelings about Scorpia Rising then join me in thanking Anthony Horowitz for the thrills and excitement he has brought us over the past ten years, and will no doubt continue to bring us in the future with the continuation of his fab Power of Five series, and the Alex Rider spin-off book he plans to write, with the story based upon how Yassen Gregorovich became an assassin. Thank you Mr Horowitz!
My thanks go to Walker Books and Just So for sending me a copy of the book to review. Scorpia Rising is released today in paperback format only (in these financially difficult time I think this is a great move as the book is priced at only 6.99 meaning that fans don't have to wait a year for a more affordable edition). Don't forget that you can get a taste for the story by reading the first chapter here.
Anthony Horowitz is also going to be siging books in a handful of places over the coming week:
Thursday 31st March, 5pm
WHSmith, The Mall, Cribbs Causeway, Bristol
Saturday 2nd April, 1pm
Waterstones Oxford, William Baker House, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AF
Saturday 9th April
11am, Muswell Hill Children’s Bookshop, 29 Fortis Green Road , Muswell Hill, London, N10 3HP
3pm, Lion and Unicorn Bookshop, 9 King Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 1ND