The ALEX RIDER books have always veered on the side of realism (as opposed to other teen-targeted spy stories such as Spy Kids and Kim Possible) but even I was surprised by just how dark the third book in Anthony Horowitz‘s series actually got.
Having been recruited and trained by MI6 in order to infiltrate locations and undergo missions in which teenagers go unnoticed, fourteen year old Alex is happy to be free of espionage and just hanging out with the lovely Sabina Pleasure (a Bond girl if ever there was one).
Naturally, his fun is over when he’s once again approached by the Special Divisions Unit — first to go undercover as a ballboy at Wimbledom to investigate a strange break-in, and then (which takes up the bulk of Skeleton Key) to pose as the teenage son of two operatives as they monitor the sinister Russian General Sarov, who is up to something on the Cuban island of Skeleton Key.
Frustrated by the mistrust of the two agents, Alex listens and watches carefully, gradually piecing together why exactly General Sarov is such a threat. When his fellow agents are taken out of commission, it falls to Alex to thwart Sarov’s plans, though to do so takes incredible courage and daring.
As I mentioned, it gets surprisingly dark this time around, with plenty of grisly deaths, a villain with an incredibly messed-up plan, and Alex falling into what is clearly a state of depression at the end of the story.
It’s to Horowitz’s credit that he plays the spy-adventures as something that has a detrimental effect on the mind and soul of a teenage boy, rather than to treat everything as a high-spirited lark. Alex doesn’t enjoy his job all that much (despite the glamourous locations and inventive gadgets) and there’s more than one conversation in Skeleton Key about the ethical implications of sending a teenager into such dangerous situations.
So I’m interested to see how Alex’s story will continue — and whether his state of mind will improve, despite the inevitability of more missions to come.