Book review: the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz

The 10th anniversary UK covers for the first eight books

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:

Bonus content:

Oh Alex Pettyfer, you were so much more attractive when you were 15.

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.

Yes, I teared up at the end.

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.

Rating:

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 ๐Ÿ˜€ย  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).

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2 Replies to “Book review: the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz”

  1. Stormbreaker was one of the few movies that Alicia Silverstone was actually great in. Haha. I mean she’s an okay actress, and she had a bunch of good movies. But she was awesome as Jack Starbright. And I think I would’ve watched more Jack Starbright movies had they made them … I mean Alex Rider movies. Ehem.

    I’m a fan of the Alex Rider books too, but I never really thought to analyze them. Haha. They’re fluff. Oddly, my favorite part of the series is also the one I have a bone with. In the last book, when *the thing* happens, we readers are not given time to recuperate. Making it *the thing* seem like a throwaway that a character could escape from. It wasn’t until later, when Alex goes back to *the thing* that we finally realize what has happened. And that that’s it.

    It was awesome that Horowitz did that because that’s really how it happens. Life doesn’t give you ample time to confront something. Things happen and the next thing you know you have to go hanging from the wing of a plane, or parachuting into a river of alligators. Life doesn’t say, I have some bad news–you might want to sit down.

    But the reason I don’t like it, is that because we are reading (and not taking part in any death-defying stunts, or in any life-threatening situations), we don’t get the full gravity of what’s happening. And in turn, what should dramatic moments become lighter/fluffy–because the reality we were supposed to be dealing with (while reading the events) hasn’t been confronted yet!

    That said, I do like how the Alex in the first book and the one in the last book are completely different people. The one in the first book would never do the things he did in the last book. Or at least not on his own volition.

    1. ๐Ÿ˜› I would have watched more Alex Rider movies too if they’d made them more serious.

      I know they’re supposed to be fluff but hey, nothing wrong with expecting a little bit more, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

      We donโ€™t get the full gravity of whatโ€™s happening. And in turn, what should dramatic moments become lighter/fluffy
      >> This also happened during the short story where Alex watches Ian kill someone. I get the feeling that Horowitz did this on purpose because while he wants Alex to experience loss and pain, he doesn’t want us readers to dwell on that, which is a pity IMHO. Or it could be because he doesn’t want us to feel it until we finish reading the book. Or maybe he could just be not that good of a writer ๐Ÿ˜› LOL

      YES to the changes in Alex. IMHO the only thing that would have driven Alex to do *the final step* would be *the thing*. (Gah it’s so difficult to describe things without spoiling anything >_<)

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