Monday, August 11, 2008

Alex Rider: Aging nine months in seven years

After nearly 10 hours (preceded a couple of years ago by another eight), I am so over Alex Rider. In his seventh adventure, Snakehead, faced with certain death each and every time, Alex succeeds at vicious Thai kickboxing, escapes from a metal shipping crate and reprograms a bomb, blows up an organ-harvesting hospital in the Australian jungle and then eludes helicopter gunfire as he kayaks down some rapids in an airplane pontoon, and parachutes onto an oil-drilling platform to disable the bomb destined to cause another tsunami. I completely understand the appeal of these novels to those reluctant reader boys, but at this point they are so predictably formulaic that nearly all the pleasure is gone. Alex still says he doesn't really want to be a spy, MI-6 still says this will be the last time, the "Q" character (called Smithers) gives him some neato devices, and the villains are all cinematically talkative. Author Anthony Horowitz is one of those prodigiously prolific authors that teeter on the edge of hackdom, but I think it's time to put Alex to bed.

A plot summary is pretty much beside the point as the details -- between death-defying events -- are really irrelevant. Suffice it to say that upon returning to Earth, Alex is "recruited" by the Australian secret service to expose a human smuggling ring, but he ends up in the middle of a plot by Snakehead (an arm of the worldwide criminal empire known as Scorpia ... I think) to explode a bomb under the seabed, creating a tsunami that will kill some rich environmental activists meeting on a private atoll along with the thousands of other people living on the western coast of Australia and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean.

However, narrator Simon Prebble helps immensely in keeping these novels from the sludge of really bad series fiction. He takes every element of them seriously (far more seriously than I do) and that commitment shows in their audio versions. Alex's worldwide adventures are accurately reflected in the multiple accents Prebble rattles off -- often in a single conversation. He knows how to set an exciting pace and how to back off at quieter moments. As Alex, he really does sound like a young man, acted upon rather than acting, and often very lonely. As Prebble's creation (as opposed to Horowitz's), Alex is extremely sympathetic.

In Snakehead, Alex finds himself at a remote hospital waiting to have his organs harvested little by little; and in the moments of extremely disturbed kindness from the hospital staff combined with Alex's feelings of helplessness at this situation I got ever so queasy while listening. By contrast, if I had been reading, I would have blown right through this section without pausing to contemplate what was really happening there. I credit Prebble for that queasiness.

Prebble also reads the "other" Anthony Horowitz series: The Gatekeepers, and I wasn't as impressed at his last outing there. Still, his soothing voice with its singular delivery lingers in my ears and I think I'd enjoy something non-Horowitz from his vast repertoire.

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