Our book today is a sweet bit of sweaty, skate-boarding adolescent relief: Alex Rider: Never Say Die, which represents the long-awaited return of writer Anthony Horowitz to writing the adventures of his signature creation, “the world’s greatest teen spy,” Alex Rider – who, we’re told, is 14, 5 foot nine inches in height, brown-eyed, and British. Left unstipulated by nonetheless obvious: cool. Alex Rider is cool – he’s unflappable, low-key stylish, and far more capable in a tight spot than most punk shrimp 14-year-olds tend to be. Even at his tender age, he’d been recruited by MI6 and trained in all manner of action-hero skills, and in Horowitz’s hands he’d gone through one after another over-the-top adventures, beginning with 2000’s Stormbreaker and running all the way to 2013’s Russian Roulette, a prequel that was the last that Alex Rider’s millions of devoted fans saw of him.
Horowitz went on to other things, writing novels for the adult-readership market (including really very good The Magpie Murders), and the Alex Rider novels were at a classic Reichenbach Falls moment: our young hero, pushed past his limits, had been forced by dastardly operatives of the evil organization known as SCORPIA to watch the apparent murder of Jack Starbright, the woman who had all but raised him and been his mentor in All Things Super-Spy:
Alex was tied to a chair, unable to take his eyes off the television screen in front of him. Wires had been attached to different parts of his body: his neck, his fingers, his forehead, his naked chest. He could feel the chill of the air-conditioning against his skin. But there was something even colder in the room. It was his own terror. Razim and Julius Grief were about the murder the person he most loved, and they were forcing him to watch.
Alex survived, of course, but he was completely burned out on the spy business. He left the ranks, enfolded himself in anonymity, and became just your ordinary everyday student at Elmer E. Robinson High School in San Francisco, intent on being a normal teenager for the first time in his life. His host family, his friends, his teachers – none of them has any idea about his superhero past, and he preferred it that way.
It seemed like a neat ending, and at the time, I liked it: the dream of this young hero who’d fought such outrageous comic book villains all across the planet and in space, this super-cool but self-effacing operative escaping from hairy death-traps and succeeding where far more experienced agents had failed – it made a neat kind of sense that the thing he’d want most would be the very thing his fellow teenagers take for granted: their ordinary, everyday lives.
But as much as I might have agreed with the symmetry of the thing (and its potential for out-of-sequence additions to the series, as Russian Roulette was), I missed the series. And now Horowitz, praise be, has at last decided that he’s not quite done with the character, and so, thanks to the folks at Philomel Books, not only are all the original novels being re-issued with eye-catching new covers by the great Larry Rostant (one of the biggest mysteries of the original printing of this series, a mystery even sharp-as-a-tack Alex Rider couldn’t solve, was why the covers were so Gawd-awful boring), but a new novel, Never Say Die, actually continues the series – our young hero is called out of his very, very early retirement by pretty much the only thing that could do it: the possibility that Jack Starbright isn’t dead after all (if Alex were much of a reader of spy thrillers, he’d have been impatiently waiting for this plot twist rather than surprised by it).
At once, readers are plunged back into this frenetic world Horowitz has created, a world of cutting-edge science, snappy dialogue, sudden reversals of fortune – and, of course, all new super-villains, including one who quite literally just fell off the turnip truck:
The woman’s real name was Dragana Novak. She was forty-six years old, and until recently she had been a lieutenant colonel in the Serbian air force; a highflier in every sense of the word. Her career had ended following a drunken fight with another pilot. He had been twice her size, but even so, she had put him into the hospital. In fact he was still there. Inevitably, there had been a court-martial, and she had been looking forward to an uncertain future – perhaps a return to the turnip farm where she had been brought up. That was when she had received the telephone call. There was a unique job opportunity. It would pay two hundred thousand dollars a day for two days’ work. Was she interested?
Dragana is of course very interested, and soon an advanced new helicopter is stolen in broad daylight, the hordes of SCORPIA are on the rise, the clues about Jack Starbright get more and more pointed, and maybe, just a little, Alex Rider realizes that normal, everyday life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The result is worth cheering about: the return of one of action-fictions best good guys, now a ripe old fifteen.
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