Saturday 27 February 2010

Review: Heist Society by Ally Carter

When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her on a trip to the case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own - scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. Unfortunately, leaving "the life" for a normal life proves harder than she'd expected. 

Soon, Kat's friend and former co-conspirator, Hale, appears out of nowhere to bring her back into the world she tried so hard to escape. But he has good reason: a powerful mobster has been robbed of his priceless art collection and wants to retrieve it. Only a master thief could have pulled this job, and Kat's father isn't just on the suspect list, he is the list. Caught between Interpol and a far more deadly enemy, Kat's dad needs her help. For Kat there is only one solution: track down the paintings and steal them back. So what if it's a spectacularly impossible job? She's got two weeks, a teenage crew, and hopefully just enough talent to pull off the biggest heist in history--or at least her family's (very crooked) history.

How about that for a mindblowingly exciting synopsis? However, yet again it is a sad fact that a significant number of boys may not take the plunge due to the main character being female. This is the third book that I have reviewed this month where the main character is a teenage girl and this book is up there with my other favourite books of the year so far. Heist Society was released in the US at the beginning of February and isn't officially published in the UK yet, although you can get your hands on a copy through as I did - I just couldn't resist as the synopsis hooked me from the moment I first read it. I love heist movies like Ocean's 11/12/13, and one of my favourite TV shows is BBC's Hustle, so this book was always going to have huge appeal for me, but above everything else the synopsis reminded me of my all-time favourite series of books, a series featuring a female main character called Modesty Blaise.

Modesty Blaise was created by author Peter O'Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway, and started as a comic strip in London's Evening Standard, way back in 1963. Its popularity led to the making of a film, and Peter O'Donnell was invited to write a novel to tie in with the movie. The book was brilliant, the film completely dreadful. Over the next few decades Mr O'Donnell went on to write a total of eleven Modesty Blaise novels and two collections of short stories. Modesty Blaise is often described as a female James Bond, although this comparison is not totally accurate - she is more like Leslie Charteris' Saint, in that she is not a secret agent, she is a retired criminal who occasionally helps out the British secret service when her special talents are called for.

As I have already said - I love these books. Modesty is an intelligent, strong, highly skilled woman who values loyalty above everything else. Her confidant and partner-in-crime, Willie Garvin, is equally as skilled and also provides some of the humour that runs throughout the series. Their adventures, often referred to as capers by the pair, as always incredibly perilous, and the methods by which they survive the many deadly attempts on their lives always very well imagined by the author. The villains are nastier than anything Ian Fleming had to offer and the action scenes are always leave you breathless. These books are not really suitable for younger boys - the violence is not much greater than anything you would find in many YA books today, but there are numerous sexual references (nothing graphic, and certainly no problem for the 14+ age group).

I could wax lyrical about these books for hours, but this review is supposed to be about Ally Carter's Heist Society. Like I said, I ordered it because it reminded me of the Modesty Blaise stories, and I am very happy to say that I wasn't at all disappointed. All the elements I love so much are present in bucketfulls - the tight plotting and fast pacing, the banter, the ingenious capers, the peril, the great characters - this could become a very successful series, and I believe there has already been some form of movie-deal arranged.

The main character is Kat Bishop. Her parents are criminals. Her uncle is a criminal. In fact, it would seem all of her close friends and family are thieves. Kat has tried to turn her back on this life, but through the machinations of a friend she is soon drawn back into the world of cons and high-class theft. Kat is a very strong character - if it wasn't for the fact that she is a thief then she would make a great role model for readers of the book, both male and female. She is an intelligent young lady who is fiercely loyal to her friends and family, determined to ensure their safety even if it puts her own life and freedom at risk. She is surrounded by strong character but always manages to hold her own, even when they all may disagree with her actions. Some of these character are a little cliched, but who cares when a story is this good?

The plotting in a story like this has to be very tight, and Ms Carter manages this with great skill. If you have ever seen the Ocean's films or Hustle then you will know that sometimes not all is clear, and you are always kept guessing as to how the 'job' will work out successfully. Both feed you tiny morsels of information along the way as little hints, often so subtly revealed that blink and you miss them. Ally Carter does exactly this with Heist Society - you really will struggle to guess what is going to happen next, but when the conclusion is reached you look back and kick yourself for not having spotted some of the clues.

One of the things that turns boys away from books with female main characters is their concern that they may be filled with romance. Yes, there is some hint of romance in this story, but it definitely takes a backseat to the main heist plot. In fact, most of the really great boy-friendly books out there with male main characters have some form of romantic element (Steve Feasey's Changeling series and MG Harris' Joshua Files are two perfect examples), and Heist Society contains no more romance than these. Above everything else this is an intelligent action story and you would be a fool not to give it a chance just because there may be the odd romantic aspect to the story.


  1. I'm a boy and I don't get why boys don't like female main characters. Take skullduggrey pleasent for example. There is no boy in that story. Only a dead man and a girl. Millions of boys love the story though. However when it comes to covers I'm one of the millions of boys. If the cover is pink like the Modesty Blaze book I won't get it. Also I do not like that much romance. So even though I adore horrer I'm only contemplating reading Twilight. Even if a few boys like it. I'm not sure if it's so much if it's got a girl character that us boys don't like. It's more if it's classed as a girly book. Which can be for no more reason than it's wrote by a woman and has a girly main character.

  2. Thanks for a great comment Anonymous. I think your Skulduggery Pleasant comparison is perfect. Another book with a female main character that the boys at school love is The Hunger Games.

    It is unfortunate that the Modesty Blaise cover is pink - most of the books have been reissued in the last few years in their original sixties covers.

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