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I have really enjoyed Robert Muchamore's first two books in this series "Henderson's Boys". The books begin with a British agent in occupied France, who ends up working with children through a twist of circumstances, rather than a conscious decision to use young people. But it does go very well - after all who suspects a child? Britain also has a surplus of orphans at the time, including a fair number who are actually from France, which means of course French is their native language and they will blend in far easier than a British person might. But it's one thing to use a child when their are few other options - it is quite another to select and train children for espionage. Would the British Government ever even consider such a thing? I'd like to think not - but WW2 was certainly as desperate a situation as one could imagine, and Britain was fighting at a heavy disadvantage. I still find the basic premise unlikely, but it is certainly more likely than the British government's role in books like Alex Rider - so I was able to get past this wee issue and just enjoy the book.
This book is all the more enjoyable because I had come to know the characters from the first two books. It is possible to read this as stand alone novel, but it would take quite a bit from the book. Much of the character development takes place in the first two books and I think you would find them a bit flat without that background. I will avoid mentioning specific names apart from Henderson though, as this would tell you for certain that these characters will escape France safely in the previous book.
There is one new character really worth noting, Mr Takada, A Japanese national who seems to have been drawn heavily from the Mr Mikado character in the Karate Kid. Mr. Takada is a drill instructor, slash sensei, and provides much of the adult interaction in this book. He is tough but very likable, but I did have one major issue with this character. It is made clear that Mr. Takada would be back in the internment camps if he were not employed by Henderson. I was unaware of Japanese being interned in Britain in the 2nd World War so I did a fair amount of digging. Britain did have internment camps for "enemy aliens" primarily Germans. The irony is that the vast majority of refugees from Germany and Austria were in fact Jewish, and very unlikely to be spies for Hitler. The camps were short lived though, with the vast majority being released by 1941, when this story takes place, and I can find no evidence of Japanese being interned. It isn't a major issue, but I believe books like this should really strive to be as historically accurate as possible, and the writer really should have done his research.
This book will also have a few appearances by Mrs Henderson - who is completely insane - perhaps a bit too completely - I felt this character could have been better balanced. Another newcomer is Luc, but having the same name and several personality traits with a character in the second book initially caused me some confusion. A few other children have been added to the group, as Henderson and McAfferty have been collecting French orphans for their programme. The most notable new comer is Troy, who is rescued from a horrific boys home, along with his 8 year old brother. While the youngest children do not train for missions, they are allowed to stay with their siblings, in Henderson's unique training camp.
This story focuses on the children's training, most notably parachute training, as well as grueling physical exercises. In addition, they must pass a test, which involves carrying out a dummy run operation on British soil. They must infiltrate a British target, and complete an objective in order to prove their worth as operatives. The children are given a much harder task by an intelligence officer who wants Henderson's programme shut down. The training, and the test will test not only the children's skill and ingenuity, but also their characters, all the while forming even stronger bonds between this group. If they fail, the group will be disbanded, meaning they will lose the only sense of family and security they have - and face being place in children's homes that might make a German POW camp look luxurious. If the succeed, they will be sent behind enemy lines on life and death missions - there is no easy path for these youngsters.
Overall, I found the story very good. Muchamore has a talent for drawing believable characters, and many of these characters were already familiar to me. He does seem to have a good grasp of how young people react, and the quality of the writing in general is quite high. I do find the whole premise of Britain using child soldiers like this a bit far fetched - but I am willing to overlook that. I'd also rather they skipped the internment camp bit unless it could be backed up historically, in which case a bit of historical detail would have been a nice touch. Finally, this book is very, very overly reliant on the magic punch one often sees in Hollywood. This is where you hit someone, either with a fist or a hard object in such a manner that they remain unconscious for quite some time, but wake up uninjured. This is of course impossible, if you hit someone hard enough to render them unconscious for any period of time, you can expect injuries, possibly permanent injuries or death.
I did consider removing a star from this book over the issues I have mentioned here. But the simple fact is, I have really enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading the next. There are a few issues, but the overall story is quite good. As an adult, I am not in the target audience for this book, which is teenage boys, but I do feel this book has quite a lot to offer this age group. I also feel that my son will really enjoy this when I feel he is old enough for some of the situations in book two. As much as this series may be intended for young boys - I think it can offer every bit as much to adventure loving young girls and this series does have an excellent female character, who breaks a few stereotypes. Finally, this book may not be intended for adults, but I know I am not the only adult to read the series. This is a series for anyone who likes a good adventure story - regardless of the age.
This book is labeled as "Not Suitable for Younger Readers". I would have no issues with my 7 year old reading this, as there are no sexual situations, but I have delayed giving him this series due to a scene in the second book. There is strong violence, and some fairly graphic descriptions of this. There is also an account of a dental visit I found frightening - and mention of the bombing of London.
For those who are considering this book - unless you have read the previous two, I would strongly recommend starting with book one. The correct order for the Henderson's Boys series is as follows:
1. The Escape
2. Eagle Day
3. Secret Army
4. Grey Wolves
5. The Prisoner
6. One shot One Kill ( expected release date 11-2012)