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This is one of only 2 books I have ever preordered. I usually wait for books to be around for awhile and buy them used, but having read the rest of this series - I knew I wanted this right away. This book is definitely not a stand alone volume, and if you have not read the previous books in the series, I would most strongly recommend that you put this off for awhile and start at the beginning with 'The Escape'. This is book number 7 in the series, and by now I feel as if the characters are old friends, but this book does depend on character development from the earlier books without which this is going to come off a bit flat.
I have reviewed all of the previous books so will not go into great detail on the series as a whole. In short - the series begins when A British spy, Charles Henderson, is trapped behind enemy lines after the evacuation of Dunkirk. Another man, who worked for him, has been killed and his children (Rosie and Paul Clark) are also trapped behind the lines, in possession of sensitive documents, and in serious danger. Henderson feels compelled to save these children before attempting to escape himself. In the meantime, the fates throw another child into his path, a young orphan, Marc Kilgour. Henderson isn't at all happy to use a child to achieve his objectives - but neither does he wish to abandon the child to his fate. Through this adventure Henderson realises the value that children can have behind the lines and later recruits and trains a group of orphaned children, all of whom are fluent in French for various intelligence gathering and Commando style raids behind enemy lines.
This book begins on the 5th of June 1944 with Henderson and a small team of operatives working with the Resistance in occupied France. If you know anything at all about history, the date here will inform you that the proverbial smelly stuff is just about to hit the fan. Henderson's priorities have just changed - instead of small scale activities like stealing ration cards - his task now is to slow down the advance of Germany's most powerful tanks - the dreaded Konigstiger which was known as the King Tiger by the allies. The Panzer was feared, but this was much worse and the allies did not have anything to match this beast. In fact the only thing to defeat these in the Ardennes was lack of fuel and ammo. This task is given top priority and Henderson and his team have just become expendable in the name of the greater good.
Henderson accepts this, his French allies do not. They fear German reprisals against their communities and don't want to rock the boat too much. This means at times the French are helping Henderson's crew, at other times they are not and there is considerable tension between the various different groups.
I have always considered Muchamore's books to be very strongly character driven. This still adds depth to the characters we already know, and their emotions are very much a part of the story, but I would class this book as event driven rather than character driven and there is one event after the other. This book does jump forward in time more than once, focusing only on specific events, but these are well connected and the flow of the story is never interrupted. The jumps are small as the entire narrative of this story takes place in less than two months, the author has just skipped the lulls between battles, the periods where the characters are waiting for the next event.
The main characters in this book are Marc, Luc and P.T. although Henderson is present throughout, as are many other characters from previous books. This book sees the addition of two new characters as well. Muchamore's books were originally written for boys, but he quickly became known for writing very strong, well balanced female characters as well. These are still present in this book, but in this case the girls are more in the background.
One of the things I have always liked best about Muchamore's book is his ability to look beyond black and white and see the grey as well. Very rarely are his villains completely evil, and his heroes are rarely perfect. He has continued this trend, although the Milice are treated with contempt, but this feeling seems pretty universal. Some of the troops coming in from the Eastern Front are portrayed as particularly brutal, but some explanation is given to this as well. We get a brief glimpse of a soldier from the Eastern front who seems decent, and lonely. He is very young, has already lost an arm and suffered horrible scarring, but has not become vicious - each man reacts differently. The book draws some attention to the losses the Germans have suffered as well. The allies are still the good guys, but sympathy can be spared for young men cut down in their prime.
Just as the Germans can be shown to have good and bad - so can the allies. Luc is basically a young thug, bordering on sociopathic, but in all honesty I liked him. He is not a true a sociopath as he did love his brother who was killed by Nazis at the beginning of the war. Instead he is a bundle of conflicting emotions lacking the ability to trust or reach out to another human being. He isn't well liked by the others - and he knows it - but he has no one else. If he was real person, his character would be heartbreaking. Most of the French are good, but many are fickle and a few are completely self serving to the point of evil. As the war draws to a close, all of the survivors must come to grips with the lives they have taken and the losses they have endured. Each handles this in their own way, but there is genuine sense of sorrow that is quite believable.
This book is intended for much younger readers, and I'm afraid some of the tension of the story line will be lost for adults. There is considerable build up as it appears the allies will bypass Paris, heading straight for Germany, and more as we learn of a German plan to level Paris to the ground. I'm sure adults all know exactly what will happen here, but we still don't know if the allies will arrive in time for our heroes, or exactly how much Paris will suffer before deliverance.
There are a few issues parents have raised with these books, and in fact some schools and libraries have banned Muchamore. There is violence and death - it's pretty hard to create a good war story where no one gets hurt, the odd use of a curse word - twice that I can think of - and very brief and vague reference to underage sex. There are also a few occasions on which teenagers consume red wine - something I don't think would be at all out of character for a 16 year old in France. In all honesty this looks like an issue imported from across the water where some of Muchamore's books appear to have upset the extreme religious right. There is nothing in this book that I would object to my 7 year old reading, much less a young teenager. I have yet to find another series that tackles awkward teenage issues in such a realistic and positive manner. If children were to consider the characters as role models this would be a very good thing in my opinion.
I have really enjoyed this book, and the entire series. It is an exceptionally well written story that I feel could appeal to a very wide age range. There really is something for everyone with well developed characters, action and adventure , but plenty of room for thought as well, encouraging the reader to see both sides of the story. In addition - it just might spark an interest in history for younger readers. I can't say this is the strongest book in the series. It does depend heavily upon its predecessors, but it does wrap everything up very well. The book ends with a quick summary of what happened next to each character after the war, giving this book a sense of closure.