This is book 6 in Muchamore's Henderson's Boys series. You could read this book as a stand alone book, but I wouldn't recommend it. On it's own this would be very good book. Taken as part of the series it is a truly exceptional book and one of the best pieces of modern fiction I have read. This is because the series as a whole allows for a great deal of character development, and jumping in towards the end you would miss some of this, and well as some of the background information on the story.
The series is based on the premise of children acting as spies behind enemy lines during the second world war. At first this premise seems a bit far fetched, but if you read the series from the beginning it does make a lot more sense. The initial pairing up of orphaned children and a British agent ( Henderson) trapped behind enemy lines happens quite by accident - there is is not premeditated decision to involve children in such a dangerous activity, but the children are in serious danger to begin with and their chances with an experienced agent are better than their chances alone. Once Henderson realises that children have a vast advantage over adult agents - simply because no one suspects them - the decision is made to train the children and continue to use them - as well acquiring more children who won't be missed - usually French war orphans who also have a grudge against the enemy they will be sent to spy on. This sounds incredibly brutal - too brutal for any British government to accept - but times were desperate in the 2nd world war - more civilians died than soldiers including a vast number of children.
And like it or not children did fight in the 2nd world war. Various resistance movements trained children in information gathering, even sabotage, as well as using them to carry supplies to partisans. Hitler Youth of course was infamous with many children serving with distinction - and not very many living to the end of the war. But there were children in the allied forces armies as well - it wasn't uncommon for a young boy to lie about his age - and at age 17 you could join some branches of the US military. Personally, I have no doubts at all that some teenagers would make every bit as good an agent as an adult. Teenagers still have that sense of immortality, a staunch devotion to a cause, as well as being a lot more fit and agile than the average adult. They learn quickly and adapt well. They are also capable of so much more than adults give them credit for. Children as young as age 10 are meant to have fought in the final defense of Berlin. Don't get me wrong I am against the use of children in warfare for any purpose, but in desperate times, such as occupied France staying out of the conflict was no guarantee of safety and people will fight for their homeland -regardless of age. Most importantly though - this is fiction so I am free to enjoy it without wrangling over moral issues.
This book begins with Rosie dropping into occupied France. Muchamore started writing for boys, but the strength of his female characters is amazing, making this a perfect book for girls who want a story with something more than vampires and snogging. Rosie is wonderfully crafted character who breaks traditional female stereotypes. Rosie's mission doesn't go to plan but she soon finds herself in possession of notebook with details of a new weapon that may turn the tide of the war back in Hitler's favour. This may be CHERUB's most important mission to date. As soon as the details of this notebook come to light, Marc, Luc, Paul and Sam begin training as snipers in a nasty contest between the youngsters to see who will be chosen for the mission. Henderson will be going as well and we will see old friends from previous volumes as well as a few new ones, but I will keep the details limited to avoid any chance of spoilers. I will only add one small fact - the weapon featured in ths book is not fictional, it was being developed by the Nazi's at this time.
This book is written in Muchamore's usual fast moving high action style. There are no lulls in this book - or good places to stop reading for the night - meaning I had to finish it the first night. There is constant suspense and action, but there is an extremely well developed overall plot as well - it isn't just a shoot em up. Once again I was impressed by Muchamore's ability to add dimension even to the minor characters. The terror of French civilians who were not involved in the fighting is well portrayed - as is the suffering of innocent people caught up in horrible situations. The Gestapo are very much your typical villains, but many of the German soldiers are portrayed as decent people. I like the fact that Muchamore doesn't make every German into a caricature villain. This also brings the horrors of war to life in a way that shootem ups with stereotypical bad guys never could. For most people taking a human life is not easy. It would be much easier if you could view your enemy as sub human - or purely evil so you are doing the world a favour by taking him out. Killing a decent man would be much harder. There are some evil people among the Germans - and some really horrible French collaborators, but Muchamore shows good and bad on both sides. Of course killing an enemy at close range is also much more difficult. This would be a terrible burden to place on a child.
Just as Muchamore's villains are three dimensional characters, so are his heroes. These are not your typical action men, the children have a wide variety of personality and character types from the staunchly loyal Marc who has survived so many hardship even before the war that he isn't easily frightened to the psychopathic Luc and a very gentlle book worm type boy, Paul. The good kids do bad things at times and make mistakes - and Luc is not a good child by any stretch of the imagination, but his antisocial tendencies are fueled by the murder of his family and a desperate desire for revenge. He is a bitter , nasty child, but if he were a real child - I would still like him. The personality flaws make the characters as real as their virtues and remain another very strong point in Muchamore's writing style.
Robert Muchamore is best known for his CHERUB series. I think his CHERUB books are excellent, and own every one of them, but the Henderson's Boys series are the books that started me reading Muchamore's books and in my opinion they are his best work. If you have enjoyed the CHERUB series - all the more reason to read this series and find out how CHERUB started. I am most clearly not in Muchamore's target audience, but I feel this series defies titles like "Young Adult". I can see the appeal of this series for teenagers, but I think these stories could appeal just as much to "old adults" such as myself as to youngsters. It isn't often you come across a series with such well developed a characters and an well written plot anymore, Muchamore's work rates among the best fiction of modern times - for children or adults.
I bought my first Muchamore book to see if it would be suitable for my son, age 7. He liked Alex Rider and the Young James Bond so this was a natural choice. The back label does say not suitable for younger readers, and throughout the series there are a few incidents that I feel are a bit mature for a 7 year old child, but the main reason I haven't given this to my son is that I feel the storyline is a bit to. complex to interest him - and at the moment he prefers graphic novels. I think he will get a lot more out of these books in a few years time. Some issues have been made about the language in Muchamore's books - he does use the odd curse word but it is well keeping with the story, and it is not frequent or overdone. There is violence - but I can't imagine a wartime adventure without violence. I find Muchamore's books a very positive influence on young people and would be quite happy for my sons to read them when they are old enough. My son has enjoyed Muchamore's 1st graphic novel and I hope it will be the first of many. Muchamore's books are the type of book to make boys really want to read - and perhaps to learn about history - but their appeal is not limited to the target audience.
I understand Muchamore's books have been removed from some school libraries - mostly in the USA where they tend to go a bit boogaloo over curse words - but also in the UK. What a sad thing to happen. Yes his books - especially the CHERUB ones do touch on very mature topics, but in such a positive way. In many ways I am fairly conservative. I read the bible, I home educate, I have a fairly strict moral standard for myself and my own family - and I really am very impressed by the way Muchamore writes about difficult topics. I believe my children are perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, and do not have to emulate any behaviour they read about in a book. But if they were to use literary characters as role models - Muchamore's characters would be a pretty good choice. This book does briefly mention underage sex - but it gives no details and the children decide to wait - a common theme in Muchamore's books with underage youth. It also mentions alcohol which is another common complaint with Muchamore's books. But teenagers do drink and a French teen having a bit of wine really does not seem out of character. It as if any mention of mature subject such as sex, drink, crime etc is wrong - but isn't it better to allow such topics to come up and discuss them openly with your children? If parents do feel any concern about this book appropriateness for their children - I can only say - read it yourself. By reading books together you can share your views on difficult subject areas. Not only are you likely to change your mind about your child reading this - but you may well become hooked on the series yourself.
The worst thing about banning books like this - is that these books really are among the very few to appeal to certain groups of children. When we take away the books children want to read - the odds are most will not read at all. But not to worry - they can always surf the net instead. it isn't like they will ever come across a bad word or mention of sex or alcohol online.