Finally closing the last chapter of the nine-book “Alex Rider” series by Anthony Horowitz felt like the end of a long, breakneck, and emotionally charged ride. The first eight books were read at a rate of around one book every 4-5 days but Book 9 took much longer because I didn’t want to end Alex’ adventures just yet.
Meet Alex Rider – a 14-year-old British orphan living with his overseas banker uncle Ian Rider and American housekeeper Jack Starbright in a nice house in Chelsea. He goes to Brookland Comprehensive. He’s intelligent, charming, and popular with his classmates. He’s captain of the football team and wants to be a pro footballer when he grows up. He knows karate, speaks fluent French, German, and Spanish plus a little Italian, and likes extreme sports like scuba diving, rock climbing, rappelling, surfing, and snowboarding. He’s pretty run-of-the-mill.
His world comes crashing down soon after his 14th birthday when Ian dies in a “car accident” because he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. Unsatisfied with the official story, Alex investigates his uncle’s death and finds out more than he could have imagined: his uncle was an operative for MI6 – a spy – and killed during his last mission by hardened assassin Yassen Gregorovitch. Ian’s “work trips” abroad where he came home injured? Missions. Ian and Alex’s vacations abroad (where Ian forced Alex to speak like a local), karate lessons, and extreme sports? Training for Alex. MI6 forcibly recruits Alex by threatening to deport Jack if he refuses because his unique combination of skill and youth makes him the perfect candidate to take over Ian’s unfinished business: investigating businessman Herod Sayle and his “generous” gift of a revolutionary Stormbreaker computer for every classroom in Britain. Thus begins next two years of Alex Rider’s life, where he faces off with a Portuguese man-o-war, snowboards down a mountain on an ironing board, escapes a great white shark, has tea with a mad pop star, trains in a special school for assassins, goes into outer space, stops a tsunami, blows up a dam, and experiences his greatest tragedy.
The Alex Rider canon is composed of nine books (with the first book published in 2000 and the last just this April 2011) and three short stories that take place between the novels. The in-universe timeline:
- Alex Rider: Christmas at Gunpoint (Jan 1, 2007) – prequel short story
- Stormbreaker (Sept 4, 2000)
- Point Blanc (Sept 3, 2001)
- Alex Rider: Incident in Nice (Nov 9, 2009) – short story
- Skeleton Key (July 8, 2002)
- Alex Rider: Secret Weapon (Feb 9, 2003) – short story
- Eagle Strike(April 7, 2003)
- Scorpia(April 1, 2004)
- Ark Angel (April 1, 2005)
- Snakehead (Oct 31, 2007)
- Crocodile Tears (Nov 12, 2009)
- Scorpia Rising (April 5, 2011)
- Extra chapter of Stormbreaker – “RTI”
- Extra chapter of Snakehead – “Coda” (serious spoilers for Snakehead!)
- Alex Rider: Underground – short story, considered AU as the main antagonist in the story died in Ark Angel
The combination of good books and Alex Pettyfer (who played Alex in the 2006 Stormbreaker movie) turned me into an Alex Rider fangirl. The books may be considered standard escapist spy fare, but Anthony Horowitz somehow makes it thrilling and heartbreaking. Alex Rider is no James Bond. He never asked for any of this. He never imagined that his uncle had an ulterior motive for their foreign trips and extreme sports. His own government blackmails him into service. He never wanted to be the one to save the world. But save the world he must, because no one else can do what he can. These similarities led me to compare Alex with another British teenage savior-of-the-known-(wizarding) world, Harry Potter. Both orphans. Both had the weight of the world thrust upon their shoulders, whether they asked for it or not. Both aged by all that they had seen and experienced. Both were manipulated by adults to serve the “greater good”. But while Harry had Hermione (and sometimes Ron) by his side, Alex had no one. While Harry had the time to learn and train and recover over seven years, Alex completed seven missions in one year. And Alex’s greatest triumph – finally being free of MI6 – came at the cost of his greatest tragedy.
The Alex Rider series also has the honor of having my most disliked book villain – MI6 Director Alan Blunt. Yes, I dislike him even more than Voldemort and Ginny Weasley. His Machiavellian outlook results in the ruthless and unfeeling manipulation and abuse of Alex Rider, all done in the name of “queen and country”.
However, this doesn’t mean that the series is perfect. Far from it actually, as there are several things that detract from the reading experience.
You don’t need to start with Stormbreaker to understand the overall story arc, as Horowitz includes copious amounts of information on what happened in the preceding books. Unfortunately, the information is given using a lot of exposition. While this will help those who read the books out-of-order, it is annoying and repetitive to those who started with Stormbreaker.
Another thing is that some of the books are “throwaway books” – fillers that are of minimal relevance to the overall plot. Point Blanc, Skeleton Key, Ark Angel, and Crocodile Tears could have been culled out and their (very few) important contributions farmed out to the other novels. Scorpia, Snakehead, and Scorpia Rising are where most of the action take place. I only wish that Scorpia Rising had an epilogue, just so I could see Alex finally happy.
The third thing that detracts from the series is the very fast-paced timeline. Again, Alex was 14 for books 1-7. While the series isn’t supposed to be realistic, it didn’t have to throw realism out the window after repeatedly stomping on it. Two or three adventures per year gives enough time for character development while keeping up the action.
The fourth would be Horowitz’ consistent use of the cliche moment where the villain conveniently explains his dastardly plot before leaving Alex in an “inescapable” trap that Alex inevitably escapes from. This ties in with the first complaint on extensive exposition – there are long stretches of telling instead of showing.
And lastly – and this is an admitted nitpick – the technology name-dropping. If you’re going to name-drop specific pieces of technology then you’d better make sure that your in-universe timeline matches. Stormbreaker was published in 2000 so Alex was given a GameBoy Color. Fast-forward to 2011 and Scorpia Rising – Alex’s arsenal now includes a DSi and an iPhone and he rejects a suspicious character’s invitation to become Facebook friends. No problem there, except that only two years have passed in AR-verse.
The series as a whole: 4/5
Stormbreaker – 3.5/5
Point Blanc – 2/5
Skeleton Key – 2.5/5
Eagle Strike – 3.75/5 (was going to get 3.5 but the ending with Yassen gave it an edge)
Scorpia – 4/5
Ark Angel – 2.5/5 (supposed to get 2 but this book introduces Tamara Knight and I like her so it gets an extra 0.5)
Snakehead – 4/5
Crocodile Tears – 3 (Tom Harris!)
Scorpia Rising – 4.5/5
And a little bonus – deleted scenes from the Stormbreaker movie 😀 Too bad it didn’t do as well as they expected. In my opinion, Horowitz made a mistake (he wrote the script) when he made it “kiddie”. Alex Rider has his share of grittiness that was nowhere to be found in the film. Ian not hearing the helicopter because the radio was too loud. The secret entrance to MI6 HQ is in a photo booth. I hated Missi Pyle’s awful accent. Sabina was bland(er). The only ones who made the movie worth watching were Alex Pettyfer, Alicia Silverstone (she was spot-on as Jack, even though she was blonde), and Ewan McGregor as Ian (because Ewan McGregor is always awesome).