Monday 22 July 2013

Review: Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff

Boy Nobody is the perennial new kid in school, the one few notice and nobody thinks much about. He shows up in a new high school, in a new town, under a new name, makes few friends and doesn't stay long. Just long enough for someone in his new friend's family to die -- of "natural causes." Mission accomplished, Boy Nobody disappears, and moves on to the next target.

When Boy Nobody was just eleven, he discovered his own parents had died of not-so-natural causes. He soon found himself under the control of The Program, a shadowy government organization that uses brainwashed kids as counter-espionage operatives. But somewhere, deep inside Boy Nobody, is somebody: the boy he once was, the boy who wants normal things (like a real home, his parents back), a boy who wants out. And he just might want those things badly enough to sabotage The Program's next mission.


You’re a multi-millionaire businessman. Yes, you may have had to strike some less than ethical deals and upset a few important people along the way to fame and fortune, and who cares if you're selling wepaon parts to Iraq? But hey, that’s why you employ a bodyguard. So when your son/daughter brings home the new boy at school, of course you don’t think twice about it. He’s your perfect clean cut, polite, all-American boy after all. And that’s just what THEY want you to think. Before you know it, your guard is down, it’s just you and him chatting in the kitchen and suddenly he lunges at you with a hypo disguised as a pen. And that’s the last thing you will ever register as collapse to the floor, your life quickly slipping away. Death by natural causes, of course!

Boy Nobody tells the story of a teen assassin. He works for The Program, a shadowy government agency that makes the CIA look like a group of boy scouts. Jack aka Ben aka is tasked with working his way into the families of his designated targets by befriending the target’s son or daughter, his youth and clean looks being the perfect cover. It’s a kill or be killed situation for him – if he doesn’t carry out his orders then it won’t be long before he finds himself the target of another of The Program’s assassins. All of this goes pretty much unquestioned by our main character until he is given his latest mission, a rush job and a target that he can’t help but like, and whose daughter he can’t help but start falling for.

Earlier this year I was able to attend a conference organised by the National Literacy trust titled Improving boys’ literacy attainment across the curriculum. For the final presentation of the day we were treated to 30 minutes of Charlie Higson talking about boys and reading, using his experiences as a father and as a writer to highlight various points. During this talk he explained that when he submitted the first Young Bond book to Puffin they got nervous and asked him if he could tone down some of the violence. They were worried that they would receive nothing but complaints from librarians, teachers, journalists, etc. Charlie told us how he stuck to his guns (no pun intended), and when the book was finally released it received very few, if any, complaints. In fact, exactly the opposite. I would imagine that this probably reflects the experiences of both Darren Shan and Anthony Horowitz, both of whom are recognised as early trailblazers of boy-friendly action stories that contain more than a hint of violence. Charlie also said that now, eight years on from the release of Silverfin, something has happened that would have been unheard of at the time of its release, let alone back in 2000 when Stormbreaker was released: one of the new covers of the Young Bond series shows the 13-year-old James Bond holding a machine gun.

The fact that in Boy Nobody we now have a book that features a main teenage character who is an assassin, killing with no remorse, shows just how far books have come since those days, and also shows how publishers are willing to push the boundaries that little but further these days and take chances on slightly edgier material. And in my opinion this is a good thing. When I was in my early teens there simply were no books like this around so I graduated very early on to reading adult thrillers by the likes of Robert Ludlum, books which certainly didn’t hold back on the violence, or the sex in some cases. I have friends who started reading Stephen King when they were 13 as nobody was writing horror for teens in those days. Surely it is better that young people are given the chance to experience books that feature violence, suggestions of sex, etc. in books that are specifically written for them than in books that are specifically written for a far more mature audience? And let’s not patronise our young adults – if they aren’t comfortable with a book due to levels of violence and so on then odds are that they will stop reading it anyway.

I loved Boy Nobody. I loved the coldness of the main character, who in many ways reminded me of the cold killer that is James Bond in Fleming’s novels, a feature of his personality that is very much lost in the majority of the Bond films. For Ben (the name that he uses for much of Boy Nobody) killing is both a job and a means of survival. If he kills he is kept in the manner he has become accustomed to. If he doesn’t kill then he knows his life won’t last much longer. I loved the fact that I struggled to relate to Ben, as he was so cold and although he starts to question his life as events start to spiral out of control, it is not the killing he is questioning, more the loss of a traditional family life.

The action scenes in the book are fast and frantic, and are guaranteed to hook boys (and girls) who like stories like this. This is a great story for gamers who are fans of Hitman, Black Ops and so on (even though they are technically too young to be playing them) as the short chapters, action set pieces and the concept of the teen assassin combine perfectly to pull them away from their games consoles and keep them buried in the book, eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next.

The book is not without its faults, but I don’t want to dwell on them for too long as they were only minor niggles for me. The claim that boys do not like romance in their books is very much a myth in my experience. Boys don’t mind a little romance, if it is done well, but like me many do not like it when it seems forced. The romantic element in Boy Nobody is an important part of the plot, and at no point does it overshadow the main theme of the story, but for me it didn’t ring true. I’m not sure what it says about me when I find the concept of a teen assassin far more believable than said assassin letting his guard down for a girl he has known for only a couple of days?

I read somewhere once, a long time ago, about a book that someone (either an individual or a group) banned somewhere as it had a young main character who killed someone and didn’t seem to feel any remorse. I love the way that Allen Zadoff never makes excuses for his main character, and he doesn’t leave us with the moral that killing is evil. Zadoff leaves it entirely up to his readers to decide whether they are comfortable with the actions of the main character, and there will be some who will side with him and sympathise with him, there will be others who will be horrified at his actions, and there will a large number siting firmly on the fence. This is a great book for encouraging discussion about what is right and wrong, the life of one versus the lives of many and whether the end justifies the means, especially as in the eyes of The Program the people that Ben is sent to dispatch are all considered threats to national security in one way or another.

My thanks go to the lovely people at Orchard Books for sending me a copy of Boy Nobody to read.


  1. I recommend Boy Nobody to all action buffs out there and to reluctant teenage boy readers as the action is non-stop. Thrilling, gripping, compelling and at times heart-tugging, Boy Nobody is a book you won't be able to put down. In the end, your heart will go out to a heartless teen. I certainly cannot wait for the sequel.
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