March 18, 2010


Henderson's Boys book #3
by Robert Muchamore
384 pages, Hodder Children's

Review by SF Winser

There are, generally, two approaches to spy novels. There's the blow stuff up, then blow it up some more, Robert Ludlum/James Bond kind. Then there's the LeCarre, moral ambiguity, stab-the-KGB-agent-who-is-also-my-brother-and-feel-bad-about-it-for-five-hundred-pages, inner-life kind.

In the world of YA, the first is well-represented by Anthony Horowitz's 'Alex Rider' series. They're a fun bunch of stories, but very – and sometimes overweeningly – Bond for Beginners. I love them, but HATE every single bloody stupid not actually funny one-liner that Alex says upon the demise of the most recent Bond-esque supervillain.

Robert Muchamore also writes spy novels for the YA market. He has two series about the CHERUBs spy agency. One set in the present day and known as the 'CHERUBs' series, and one about the origins and early years of Charles Henderson's Espionage Research Unit B, known as 'Henderson's Boys'. He has his fair share of explosions, and more sex than Horowitz. But he's also the closest to LeCarre the YA market has.

Muchamore writes about young kids used as spies. Spies are always best when no one suspects who they are; and no one suspects children of sabotage or surveillance. But, rather than going the Disneyfied, white-hat/black hat divide, Muchamore writes kids who are 'mostly' good guys. The main character in 'CHERUBs', for example, is a good-enough kid who is also close to delinquent-hood and an absolute slave to his hormones. He ends up a bit of a womanising tosser who, luckily, has loyalty to his friends and a growing sense of right and wrong.

CHERUB's enemies, in both series, are often dangerous and have no compunction in brutally harming children. The series’ are technically escapism, but Muchamore brings a sense of the real, so that any adult reading can't help but wince as a twelve-year-old gets into a fight with a Nazi and so-forth. Children break arms, lose teeth and – almost more disturbingly – give as good as they get, often seriously injuring adults or other children in the course of duty. There is a real sense of pain and danger throughout. Muchamore has written at least one YA novel that publishers won't touch because it's too violent. His books tend to deal with (semi) realistic enemies, too. Drug-dealers, bikers, terrorists and cults in the modern series, Nazis in the historical. And the CHERUB kids have been known to fall into friendship or love with kids from the 'baddie' camp when they come across someone who just happens to have the wrong parents or nationality.

In 'Henderson's Boys' this theme of the amorality of the spy-game is shown through by two characters. Luc, an orphan French boy rescued from the Nazis by Henderson is, quite frankly, a sociopath. He feels no remorse for smacking a fellow trainee in the face with a blob of melted glass and metal in order to fulfill a mission. That is, he almost enjoys causing pain to someone on his side because it's fun and he can get away with it. The other is Henderson himself. Henderson is a philanderer, self-absorbed, cold in battle and driven. And in charge of the lives and training of twenty-plus children. A reader should not go into these books looking for too many nice guys.

There ARE nice guys, though. Both series tend to be more like ensemble affairs, Henderson's Boys in particular. The other main characters include Paul and Rosie, a couple of well-bred English siblings with big hearts full of courage and honour. Paul's artistic streak makes him an 'interesting' fit in what is seen as a military command. Rosie, as the only girl, has a massive fight to prove herself. Marc, Henderson's protege and sometimes conscience, is a big, smart French boy who sees himself as the necessary leader. PT, an American boy on the run from the law and trying to redeem himself. He takes charge in the heat of the moment, which will probably lead to tensions with Marc in later books. All of them likable characters.

There is one thing to note about these books, though. They tend not to follow tidy narrative arcs. Muchamore is almost writing fictional historical narrative, in that his books are full of incidents that feel significant but are about minor characters or things that have no bearing on the current plot. This is one of the reasons why my review of this one book has been more a discussion of Muchamore's approach to series-writing. In 'Secret Army' we get two more French orphans introduced as the book (finally) follows the official establishment of CHERUB and its fight to stay open against bureaucratic pressures. But these two kids have no real relevance to either strand of the book's major plot-lines. They have no role in the setting up of CHERUB or in the 'final test,' where a group of agents complete parachute espionage training on home soil and are sabotaged by their enemies. These two new kids are introduced via significant page-time more to show the workings of CHERUB while the main characters are off doing other things, and so that Muchamore can use them for something else in future books.

As a book, I must say that 'Secret Army' is the first of the three 'Henderson's Boys' books that I've really enjoyed. I have no idea why that is, since I liked most of the CHERUBs books just fine. I suppose, as a reviewer, it's my job to work it out and say why.

Let's give it a shot.

It may be because the first books never really had a 'mission', they were even more loosely plotted than your typical Muchamore book. They were a series of happenings in occupied Germany where some kids and an adult do their best to survive and get out alive – though some parts of the earlier books, like a coordinated naval bombing, did have a sense of direction. 'Secret Army' finally has a followable narrative arc, of sorts. Maybe it's because CHERUB is finally in operation and these kids have that extra level of novelty about them now. They're better trained and more respected by Henderson than they were in the first books. Maybe it's because instead of a feeling of failure delayed and disaster averted, this book is the first to have an undercurrent of hope and a sense of building toward something greater. Probably a mixture of all three of these would be the most accurate reason.

Though the fact that this series in particular has such a large cast means it has taken at least three books to finally get a sense of who they all are. The Luc/Marc divide gets a little blurred at times with their similar names and similar backgrounds. There's at least one typo in my edition of the book that suggests that I'm not the only one who gets them confused – even the editor missed when their names get accidentally transposed at one point.

As for readership... well... reluctant teen boys love these books. Teens will probably love 'Secret Army' just as much as the other Muchamore books. They're usually balls-to-the-wall adrenaline pumpers. And I say that as an owner of testicles, knowing full well that that phrase has much more brutal imagery than the sense in which it is often employed. These books are not cheap shockers - they're full of any shock at all that will get the blood pumping, even if that shock isn't a nice, clean Hollywood explosion. This entry is, actually, a touch less action-oriented, but, somehow more interesting. Muchamore finds the terror of parachute training, the danger of hiding on a bus full of spies or even the fear of a bully, and uses it to build character in an understated, gritty way.

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