Wednesday, 8 July 2009

All's Fair in Love and War?

Henderson's Boys by Robert Muchamore.
Book 1 - The Escape
Book 2 - Eagle Day

Robert Muchamore has a loyal fan base, all of whom love the Cherub books and have been eagerly awaiting this new series. Muchamore writes gritty, contemporary thrillers where young adults are the spies. He packs no punches and his characters are far more James Bond than, squeaky clean, Alex Rider.

Now Muchamore has turned to history for inspiration, and The Escape opens just before the fall of France in May 1940. Much of the first half of the book is spent introducing the main characters but is still action packed and moves swiftly from Northern France, through Paris to 'free' Bordeaux in the south.

Henderson is a British undercover agent who has been working for a while in France, he is on one last mission before returning to England. Rosie and Paul are travelling through France with their father who has some secret documents that must be handed over to Henderson. Marc is an orphan who is taking advantage of the war to make a new life for himself.

Things don't go to plan for anybody amidst the chaos of the German invasion, and by the time the disparate group meet up it is clear that France will soon be totally under German control and that England needs all the help she can get in order to remain free.  The foursome, joined at various times by extra help, spend the next 500 or so pages causing maximum disruption to the Germans whilst all the time trying to return to England.

The action throughout is fast paced and well described. Muchamore's great talent is in his ability to use very few words to thoroughly describe all of his locations and characters whilst at the same time never leaving you confused as to what is happening.  All of the children come to life realistically even if they are all a little talented to be true. They also do seem to be children of the 1940s rather than modern teenagers, the way they talk and act is reminiscent of books written at the time. They question, quibble and quarrel throughout the story but at the same time they all have that typical wartime pluck that sees them act in a far more responsible way than you'd expect.

For me it is Henderson himself that lets the story down.  I feel the kindest way to describe him is as a flawed hero, but to my mind he comes across as a blood-thirsty sadist. He kills repeatedly, in many ways - all of which are graphically and stomach churningly described by Muchamore - and seems to take great pleasure in inflicting pain, mental or physical.  To their credit the children seem uneasy with this and never totally reconcile this side of the man. he justifies his behaviour by saying that everyone else would do worse than him if allowed. He certainly seems to believe that the only good German is a dead one, and he makes no distinction between a German conscript and a hardball Nazi.
His character is probably right for a 1940s spy trapped in an enemy country but I feel that while the violence is generally needed for the plot it perhaps needn't be described in such detail and with such relish.

I did enjoy this duo on many levels. I found the violence and sadism a little much especially in a book that has main characters aged between 10 and 15. If these books were filmed as they stand they would have to be given at least a 15 certificate and yet the readers will be considerably younger. They do come with a 'not suitable' warning but I don't think that the books would lose anything at all by being toned slightly.

There will be more Henderson's Boys books but as these two have a complete story arc I don't think I will be rushing to read them.

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