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When writing a review for very young children's books, I don't mind giving up a bit too much plot if there is anything that may upset or frighten a young child. But if the review is for a a book that adults might read, I'd rather be a bit too vague than end up spoiling the story. With a series, I have to consider that the person reading the review may not have read the previous books yet, and so am very careful to avoid spoilers there as well. With this book, there is one I can not avoid as it in the title of the book, as well as being central to the plot. I'm sure most of you will guess this involves a prisoner, and since the book is about young espionage agents working behind enemy lines in the 2nd World War - it doesn't take a great deal of deduction to work out the fact that one of them will be taken prisoner. All the same, I would rather not have known which one would be taken prisoner before reading the series, so I will leave the prisoner nameless, referring to him only by the title of this book.
The Prisoner is book 5 in Robert Muchamore's Cherub prequel set during second world war. In the first book British agent Charles Henderson finds himself in circumstances where using a young orphan to help him complete his mission is honestly the least objectionable of possible alternatives. He quickly ends up with a few more children in tow, and makes a valuable discovery. Adolescents are capable of every bit as much bravery and valor as adults, but they have an added advantage that no one suspects them. A child can hang about without causing suspicion, and even if caught where they should not be, may well be suspected of nothing more than childhood mischief.
In the first two books, using children was more of an accident. After this though, a conscious decision was made to train and send children on missions. This of course raises several issues, and in real life I find the idea of boy soldiers distasteful to say the least. Children should not be drawn into adult's politics, but in the 2nd World War, the situation was so desperate, and the lives of these children in institutions so horrific that some concessions can be made. Most importantly though - it is fiction so once we get past the idea that using children would be immoral we can sit back and enjoy the story. And in all honesty, children are capable of so much more than adults give them credit for. I think this is part of the appeal to these books. Children like reading about other children freed from the social constraints of acting like children.
The first books had a number of characters, including some very well written strong female characters. This book really centers on just one character, who has been taken prisoner in the previous book. I will not give any details of his arrest or charges, but will say only that he held with forced labour in a camp for criminals rather than POW's. An actual POW camp might have been an improvement on some of the children's homes these orphans faced, but to put it mildly - an extended sentence in a forced labour camp for child could easily become a death sentence. Early on our prisoner has some protection in the form of very kind German official who seeks to protect him because of his youth. But he has also earned the hatred of a very sadistic German guard, as well as a fellow prisoner.
Again, I do try very hard to avoid spoilers, but I think we all know if he were just to sit out the war in this camp - it wouldn't make much of a book. Of course circumstances arise where escape becomes the prisoner's main objective. I will not go into any further detail for fear of spoiling the story, but there is plenty of action and suspense to keep the younger readers going, as well as enough of psychological dimension to this to keep an adult reader interested.
These books are intended for young adults ages 12- 17. Obviously, I do not fall into this age category, but judging by Amazons reviews, a great many adults have taken to this series. I had originally planned to preview these for my son, as he has enjoyed other young adult books, but there are some books in this series that earn the stamp on the book "Not Suitable for Younger Readers". This book very much earns this label in my opinion. There is graphic violence, but this does not really upset me, but there is also a bit more sex than the other books and one instance referring to rather extreme sexual violence. I would certainly not want to read this book out loud to my 7 year old son, nor would I find this appropriate for him to read on his own. I would very strongly recommend against giving this book to an under 12. This is really a book parents of younger children should read first - and I would not buy this for a young niece or nephew. The incident in question only comprises a page or two, it is not written in excessive detail, and the story certainly does not revolve around sex of any kind, but it does make this a book for teens or adults, not primary school age children.
This book also does have some mention of the Holocaust, although not of the death camps yet ( it is set in 1942). This would also have been an issue if I were reading this to my son. It is very tastefully written and well handled, but I feel a seven year old is too young to be exposed to such horrors yet. For the target audience of ages 12+ though, I feel this book would be very educational and really provoke thought into this difficult period of history. In addition to being a really exciting story, this book may well inspire children to learn a bit more about history, and a few historical facts are included in footnotes at the bottom of the page. I also think this book might teach something about compassion.
I have to say - I loved this book. I almost never buy a new book for myself, but as used copies cost as much as new ones, I splashed out on myself this time. I simply could not wait for the prices to drop as I usually do, and I expect I will treat myself to the next edition shortly after it's release in September. I finished this in two nights - losing a fair amount of sleep in the process. I liked the way the book gives you a real sense of another place and time, but as with other books in this series, what I like most of all is the way Muchamore develops his characters. His characters are completely believable, and most combine virtue and vice to some extent. We do get a few very nasty sorts, but we find them on both sides, and there is good on both sides as well. I find this really refreshing as it is all to easy to paint the enemy as all evil, but there are sections in this book that will make your heart go out to Germans as well.
I very much seek out this type of book for my son, and if not for the more adult content would be very happy to share this with him now. As it is, it will have to wait until he is older, but I really like the fact that this encourages young people to see the other side as well, to feel compassion for an enemy rather than dehumanising them. It takes a talented author to make you feel strongly for the "other side" in a conflict, and Muchamore does just that. But as much as I like the book for it's even handed treatment of both sides - it does drive home the horrors of war. Good people die on both sides and sometimes those on your own side can be as bad as the enemy.
Five stars feels like shortchanging this book - it one of those few I find truly exceptional.