Friday 18 October 2013

Review: Russian Roulette by Anthony Horowitz

An international contract killer has been given his orders. His next target is a fourteen-year-old spy ... Alex Rider. The man's name is Yassen Gregorovich. He knows Alex well. The two of them share a secret from the past. As he considers his next mission, Yassen remembers the forces that turned him from an ordinary schoolboy into a hired assassin. What is it that makes someone choose to do evil? What would it take to make them kill? This thrilling adventure will be the deadliest yet...

This story needs little introduction as it is the book that Alex Rider fans have been waiting for years to read. It is the origin story of one of the AR series' most interesting and enigmatic characters, Yassen Gregorovich, assassin for hire and ruthless, cold-blooded killer. The story is largely told in the first person, with Yassen reading through a journal he has kept for many years, to kill time before he sets out to complete his latest mission - the assassination of Alex Rider.

The story takes us from the violent events that led to Yassen (or Yasha as he was originally called) fleeing from his village, through his time enslaved to a Moscow gangster and then on to his creation as a tool of destruction for Scorpia. We are also treated to the long-awaited first meeting with Alex' father, John Rider, and the relationship that developed between them.

I genuinely feel that this is the best Anthony Horowitz book I have read to date. I was 29 when the first Alex Rider book, Stormbreaker, was published in 2000, but that didn't stop me from picking it up and absolutely loving it. If I'm honest, I have to credit Anthony Horowitz, along with JK Rowling, as being responsible for my current love of YA and children's literature, and therefore this blog. Reading the early Harry Potter books and Stormbreaker and its sequels, prompted me to seek out other books for this age group, and suddenly my reading, which up to this point had been largely adult, was changed for ever.

Like most readers and movie lovers I have always been a fan of a well-created, interesting villain, and I have held Yassen Gregorovich up there with the likes of Darth Vader, Voldemort, The Joker and Miss Trunchbull. There was always those big questions left unspoken at the end of Stormbreaker - why did Yassen not kill Alex? And why the salute as the helicopter flies off? Finally, in Russian Roulette, Anthony Horowitz provides the answers.

We all know that Horowitz is one of this country's greatest writers for young people, so what makes this book so special? Firstly, this must have been one of the hardest books for Anthony to write - not only was he writing a book for long time fans of Alex Rider, most of whom will be in their 20s at least by now, but he also had to make it appealing and suitable for young people who are at an age to pick up his books for the first time, kids who may not yet have discovered the Alex Rider books. He achieves this in two ways: as well as being the kind of fast-paced action story that we have come to expect from the main series, there is also a great depth to this story, allowing older readers to dwell on the many moral questions that are posed by Yassen's story. This book would make such a great class reader in schools, as it would encourage students to debate over the rights and wrongs of Yassen's actions, as he grows into the adult assassin. Sadly, there will be schools where this will never happen, and it may even get banned in some libraries and schools (more likely in the US than over here) as blinkered adults make uninformed judgements about it being a story that glorifies the life of a contract killer. It isn't and it doesn't. End of!

However, for me the book's greatest achievement is in the way the author allows the reader to empathise with Yassen, without ever feeling guilty for rooting for a character who will become a vicious killer. We actually find ourselves wanting him to succeed, as we are able to see every event, however seemingly minor at the time, that leads to the creation of the final product. This is a boy who faces horrors that no child should ever have to face, and in comparison Alex Rider's life seems one of privilege.

Last week we were incredibly fortunate to be able to welcome John Boyne into school. During his presentation to our Year 8 pupils, he mentioned in answer to a question that he felt that there was very little (if any) rubbish being published for young people these days, whereas there was a huge amount of rubbish being published for the adult market. I found myself nodding enthusiastically in agreement - if more adults picked up books like Russian Roulette, or one of the many other brilliant books I have read in 2013, they might find their reading diets shifting quickly to YA, just like mine did back in the early 2000s. Sadly though, especially I think amongst male adult readers, there is this stigma against being seen with a book written for teens, and they would much rather continue reading tosh written for the adult market.

My thanks go to the lovely people at Walker Books for sending me a copy of Russian Roulette.


  1. I've been a massive fan of the Alex Rider series growing up - I remember reading my first one in Yr 6 and being hooked since. I'm 17 now and was REALLY looking forward to reading this, but then college and exams got in the way and I forgot about it. I discovered your blog and now, after reading this post, I am totally going to get the book :D your review was awesome btw

  2. I completely agree with you that reading YA fiction as an adult is a very good idea, and it's a pity a lot of people look down on it. There are so many interesting, good written, intelligent YA novels these days. I simply love to read them, to reread them, to discover new ones. Also, I think teenagers are very interesting as main characters, because they still have to become who they are; they grow in the story, they have doubts, their feelings are strong and pure. I tried to start reading adult books, but I never got used to them. Your blog makes me feel that this is actually okay. I think your website is fantastic; I loved the interviews (Anthony Horowitz!) and many of your reviews; and it's nice to know there are other adults preferring YA literature. Keep on going this way!


  3. OMG I just finished reading it after I opened it last night ( stayed up late and no homework got done). I finished and just sat there ands thought about it then I felt like I wanted to scream and cry and then I 're read it. I loved it!! I am going to buy it. Though I do wish for father point of view in yassen's life up to his demise.

  4. Is there going to be a sequel? They have certainly left room for it. There's so much still to happen that we know about... John's faked death for instance. That would be huge for Yassen. And his work with Damian Cray. I need to know the rest of the story.

  5. I'm a 55-year old mom. I found the Alex Rider series when looking for books for my youngest son. He'd always had trouble falling asleep and I was fortunate that he enjoyed being read to until he fell asleep. We both love the Alex Rider series. I hope Anthony Horowitz continues with the story of Yassen Gregorovich. We were always curious about his story.

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