Whatever I expected from Stormbreaker, the first book in the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, I did not expect the initial urge to compare the book to the classic Hardy Boys series. Stormbreaker is about fourteen-year-old Alex Rider, an orphan, who upon the mysterious death of his uncle, suddenly finds himself recruited into MI6 as a spy, and sent to scout out the secret plots of an apparently philanthropic businessman who has offered to donate state-of-the-art computers to all the schools across England.
I knew Stormbreaker was different from the adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy, but at first I was focused on the close similarities. Both are about delightfully implausible adventures, both are about teenage boys ready to take on rough and tumble scenarios typically the province of adults, both are fast paced thrillers with a dose of mystery. Both have a formulaic structure, and neither pretends to be a model of high literary achievement. Yet something was fundamentally different.
Author Anthony Horowitz gave me the leading clue in his description of the protagonist, Alex Rider, as a “fourteen-year-old James Bond.” Horowitz outright advertises this comparison when he has Alex join MI6 and receive a Double-O nickname. Enter a stern-faced equivalent of the “M” character who gives Alex his mission, followed by a “Q” character who provides Alex with gadgets. The gadgets (including a combination fax machine and smoke bomb designed to look like a GameBoy) are very cool and the premise a fun one. On the other hand, the comparison might give rise to parental concern, as the Bond films, entertaining as they may be, promote violence, moral ambiguity, and the objectification of women as signs of manliness. Thankfully there are no instances of the latter in Stormbreaker.
Violence, on the other hand, is a core element in Alex Rider’s adventures, and we are not talking about Frank and Joe Hardy’s innocuous fistfights. The violence in Stormbreaker is persistent and graphic. One of the most shocking instances occurs when one of the villains matter-of-factly shoots another for making a mistake. What is more disturbing is that the end of the book implies that Alex somehow identifies with the shooter. Other instances of violence include electrocution on a barbed wire fence and a description of how a man-of-war jellyfish kills one of the antagonists. All these images are alluring to one side of the imagination, but probably not nourishing to the healthy side.
There are no positive adult role models in this book, with the possible exception of his deceased uncle, about whom we know little other than his success as a spy. We do get the sense that he cared for Alex, though his nephew does not seem to have inherited that trait. The other character who seems to care about Alex is his former babysitter. Unfortunately her role in the story is so diminished I wondered why the author bothered to include her. Perhaps she plays a more significant role in later books. Other adult figures include the MI6 staff, who treat him as a tool to be used, and the other MI6 trainees, who despise him until he kicks one of them out of a plane.
Possibly the most saddening element of this book and Alex’ character, however, is his stony indifference to his circumstances. He is either disdainful of or coldly unresponsive to those around him. We are informed that he is grieving for his uncle, but upon receiving the news about his uncle’s murder, his first question is about the disposal of his uncle’s property. While the constant stream of set action sequences is designed to thrill the reader, Alex himself is more like a high-functioning robot than a human being invested in life. There is no sense of joy in his actions. The most compellingly human moment actually comes from the main antagonist who, instead of monologuing about ruling the world, gives a sobering account of how poverty, racism, and bullying dominated his childhood. Alex rightly points out that getting bullied is not an excuse for the outright genocide the villain (aptly named Herod) intends. But Alex himself has no sense of love for others. He has no sense of discovery, illumination, exhilaration, or even satisfaction at what he accomplishes, choosing a sullen cynicism that borders on despair. And this seems to be as the author intended. Horowitz says that the difference between James Bond and Alex Rider is that Alex is not a patriot, “has no desire to save his country”. Horowitz says, “It is Alex’ reluctance, the way he’s always pushed and manipulated into his assignments, that has made him so popular.” If this book is meant to appeal to teenage boys’ reluctance to seek good things of their own initiative, it is appealing to the worst in them.
I acquired but have not read Point Blank, the second book in the series. Before I consider reading it, I think I need to go cleanse my imagination with The House on the Cliff. Still, while the innocent exhilaration in the Hardy Boys series may not grow old, it is not enough. Stormbreaker made me really hope that some author somewhere is writing an extended young adult series that is both nourishing and new, that excites the imagination and stirs the heart toward strong ideals. Our children need a compelling model of the daring adventurer; one they can call their own. Alex Rider is not that model.