Friday 16 January 2015

Review: Big Game by Dan Smith

13-year-old Oskari is sent into the cold wilderness on an ancient test of manhood. He must survive armed only with a bow and arrow. But instead, he stumbles upon an escape pod from a burning airliner: Air Force One. Terrorists have shot down the President of the United States. The boy hunter and the world's most powerful man are suddenly the hunted, in a race against a deadly enemy.

A handy indicator of how much I enjoy a book is if it has me reading well into the night, on a 'school night' when I am already feeling very tired. This doesn't necessarily apply to every book that I totally loved, but it does apply to Dan Smith's Big Game. It is as if Dan Smith has delved into my DVD collection, and then used his findings to write a book that was guaranteed to appeal to me and kids around the world who have a hunger for cracking action stories.

The story behind Dan Smith's writing of Big Game is a little different from most of the books I have read in recent years. From what I can make out, Chicken House supremo Barry Cunningham acquired the rights to publish a book based on the screenplay of a Finnish/British produced film, and then asked Smith is he would write a book based on that script. Unlike many books based on films, it was not to be a direct novelisation of the movie, but was instead to be a book that would stand as a great action novel in its own right, and this is one of the reason why it works so well. Don't get me wrong, movie novelisations are a great way to engage boys with reading, and I read loads of them when I was a young reader, but too often they come across as second rate to the film and are simply the film translated into words on paper. However, for Big Game to be second rate to the film, then it is going to have to be one damn great film indeed (ok, so it has Samuel L. Jackson in it does have something of a head start).

Big Game is like White House Down or Olympus Has Fallen (don't judge me too harshly for loving both of these films), but set in the wilds of Finland (although I believe that technically Air Force One is the White House when the US President is on board), and instead of Channing Tatum or Gerard Butler stepping in to kick terrorist butt and rescue the President, enter 13-year-old Oskari, possibly the most unlikely hero of all. Tradition has it that in Oskari's society a boy must prove himself in order to be considered a man at the age of 13. Oskari must therefore venture out into the wilds on the eve of his thirteenth birthday and return the following day with a trophy, i.e. the head of a creature he has hunted and killed himself. 

Unfortunately Oskari is small and not particularly strong - he cannot even pull back the string of the huge bow that tradition dictates he must use to make the kill. It is with a great fear of shaming his hunter father that he sets off into the Finnish forest alone, but with the hope that he will somehow be successful and return with a trophy of which he can be proud. However, his hopes and plans are dashed when terrorists bring down Air Force One and Oskari, barely surviving being killed by the cataclysmic crash, stumbles across an escape pod containing the US President. Oskari's quest to become a man suddenly becomes a race for survivial, with all the odds stacked against him.

Big Game could be added to the dictionary as the definition of 'edge of your seat thriller'. The short chapters and fast-paced and relentless action make it one of those books that is incredibly difficult to put down, as I discovered when I was still reading it at midnight, desperate to find out whether Oskari and the President would escape from their hunters. Yes, I imagine that the film is probably one of those action-by-numbers films that some sniff at but others (like me) can't get enough of, and those same detractors will probably turn those sniffy noses up at this book, but it is the perfect book for middle grade readers who love action and adventure stories, and Oskari is a brilliant character with whom many young readers will empathise.

Big Game was published in the UK on 1st January and my thanks go to the fab people at Chicken House for sending me a copy.


  1. Is it good for older reluctant readers?

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  2. I think it will work for older readers too. I'm 43 and I loved it as a reader, and not just as a reviewer of books for kids. I've checked out a few reviews for the film and it looks like a great action film so that may help encourage reluctant readers as well.

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