Russian Roulette (Review)

What makes someone a hero? What drives them to become a killer?

These are the core questions at the heart of the much-anticipated sequel to Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Russian Roulette takes a look at the series’ main antagonist, Yassen Gregorovich: his life leading up to the fateful moment when he joins SCORPIA to become a contract killer, and explores just how inextricably linked both Yassen and Alex’s lives are.

Friends, family and readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz, so this review is probably a bit biased. But after reading this prequel, Horowitz’s skill at crafting such a complex story with multilayered themes cements his position as one of my all-time favorite writers. And returning to the shadowy world of Alex Rider took me back many years as a reader, to when I first discovered the series.

I did not expect this book to be so emotionally charged. We grew to hate Yassen in the earlier Alex Rider books; what he supposedly did was despicable and rooted him as our teenage hero’s nemesis. But in Russian Roulette, we explore the portrait of a child desperate to survive in a post-Communist Russia ravaged by conspiracies revolving around ruthless foreign investments and deadly technologies.

First-person narrative is a powerful device to get right into a character’s mind, and Horowitz uses this well in the main portion of the story, through the format of a memoir. Indeed, presenting Yassen’s story as a memoir makes for a rather romantic attitude to the whole assassin tale. We move with Yassen as he grows up, alone, into a harsh world and develops a hatred for the man who destroyed his entire existence, his entire childhood: Vladimir Sharkovsky.

Horowitz probes the very psychology of how a killer is made by tracing Yassem’s story from the quiet village of (fictional) Estrov, to the hustling streets of Moscow; from the timeless beauty of Venice and the sinister Widow’s Palace to the sweltering jungles of Peru, skyscrapers in New York City and, of course, the island of Malagosto, where Yassen’s transformation begins.

Fans of the series will recognize allusions to events in the future, especially the fateful moment with Yassen and Hunter (trying to avoid spoilers here!) that Horowitz wrote as a prologue to Alex’s fourth mission, Eagle Strike.

It is difficult to justify a hero as someone who kills for a living. But in Russian Roulette, Horowitz writes Yassen as a character that we truly feel for, and root for to the very end. It is true that one should never be quick to judge character based on mere assumption. In Russian Roulette, we see how an innocent boy, a child who had dreams and aspirations, is so easily transformed into a cold-blooded killer thorough the subtle events that subsequently influence decisions leading him down a path to the fearsome SCORPIA.

For any fan of Anthony Horowitz, and of his Alex Rider series, this book is a must-read. The epilogue alone makes it worth the read, deftly tying this book to the first of the Alex Rider stories: Stormbreaker. 5/5 Stars.


My December 2013 Reading List

Last November/December, I read five insanely great books: Oblivion by Anthony HorowitzOn Writing by Stephen King, and The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games trilogy was one of my most favourite reading experiences in a long time – you can read more about it in my review of the trilogy here.

So with yet another long holiday, I’ve decided to set out a list of books I aim to get through. Being an avid reader with limited time during most of the year, I’ve been looking forward to devouring these titles for some time now.

So without further ado, here’s the 2013 December Reading List:

  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Russian Roulette by Anthony Horowitz
  • David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Story Physics by Larry Brooks
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling

I’ve been wanting to read Fight Club ever since I saw the film; Russian Roulette is a must, being a die-hard Alex Rider fan; David and Goliath stems from my interest being piqued by Gladwell’s writing and insights after reading Outliers; Story Physics is a must after reading Story Engineering, and I hope to learn more from it about the intricate process of crafting novels. And then there’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, a surprise entry which I have to read after finding out that J.K. Rowling, one of my all-time favourite writers, was behind the mask of Robert Galbraith. Oh, and it’s apparently a brilliant thriller too.

This list is as much a public commitment and a tracker for myself, as it is a way of sharing my reading interests with you, dear reader. Be sure to check back on this blog to read my thoughts on these books as I finish them. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, you’re welcome to add me ( <– that’s me on the reading social network ;)). And leave a comment below if you have any suggestions for good books to read.

Panem et Circenses: Thoughts on The Hunger Games Trilogy

The concept of the Hunger Games is chilling. I ask you, dear reader: would you willingly enter an arena, and, televised live to viewers across the country, attempt to survive by killing your fellow competitors to be crowned victor? All the while knowing that their path to victory is your death? Now imagine being forced to live under that threat – that seemingly at random, your name could be picked at the annual reaping to be your district’s next tribute, the next competitor in this sadistic tournament? All to prove the point that overthrowing the government is a fruitless endeavour.

That concept alone is enough to set this series apart from the dregs of pitiful fiction on bookshelves aimed at the young adult market.

It hasn’t been for a (very) long time that I’ve read a book – or a series – that has left an indelible mark on my mind. That’s stuck with me, compelled me, made me question things. Leave me feeling really depressed that the series is over, and that I have to return from the fantastical world and characters that the author lovingly crafted to the mundanity of real life.

It happened with the Harry Potter series; I experienced this feeling again when I completed The Casual Vacancy (with that one, it wasn’t so much sadness from leaving the world than from the tragic events that stuck with me). And now, most recently, after reading Suzanne Collin’s masterful The Hunger Games Trilogy. Yes, it’s young-adult fiction (YA for short). Yes, the lead character is only 17 in the final book (Mockingjay). Yes, it’s science fiction and dystopian. But these are the ingredients that make it just so irresistible to this geeky science-fiction writer.

The series is harrowing. It’s gripping, heart-wrenching, adrenaline-fueled and with so many plot twists that the narrative is more interlaced than Pan’s Labyrinth, the myth upon which the series is based.

Let’s start with the lead character, Katniss Everdeen. Through the sixteen-year-old’s eyes we experience the plight of Panem, a country built on the ashes of what was North America. We see a twisted world where a corrupt state governs 12 districts under the philosophy of panem et circenses – “bread and circuses”. The districts provide the food and commodities for the Capitol’s citizens to enjoy their cozy lives, and they also provide the “circuses” – the entertainment, in the form of the Hunger Games. Katniss is perhaps the strongest female lead character I’ve yet read. She’s brave, clever, cunning, and not without flaw. That’s what makes her so human, and thus such a powerful force. The “girl on fire” is the pawn in a ruthless game to take back Panem and end the injustice of Capitol governance, and the vileness that is the Hunger Games.

I’ve been wary of first-person books, and perhaps that reason drew me away from the series. But after watching the film adaptation last year, I was convinced about the series’ merit. The books’ style is impressive. Collins’ idea to write the books in first-person present tense was a great one; she’s certainly a good writer and has executed the narrative with aplomb. She manages to add enough surprises and build events up sufficiently to ensure that all three books – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are impossible to put down.

The dystopian world of the future is beautifully crafted. Katniss’s narrative paints a picture of a planet recovering from the cancerous effects of a civilisation shrouded in greed and disregard for what’s actually going on. The fact that the Capitol’s citizens (well, most of them) can live their lives in peace without questioning the turmoil going on in the districts in order to maintain their lush existence is proof that Collins has created a world in many ways mirroring our current times.

This is where the series has its most power I think. Despite it being a YA, it carries strong messages to our generation about what a screwed-up world we live in. A world where, whilst one group lives a life of gluttony, people out there starve and pay for the decisions of an apathetic select few. A world that is ruled by a degenerative culture of entertainment in the form of reality television that can be powerful enough to staunch individual critical thinking. Where the importance of celebrity overrides the merit of work in the aid of advancing our species. A world where poverty and injustice and crime is so common that it’s easy to turn a blind eye to it. Where war is an inevitable method for settling differences, and despite History teaching us of its devastation, it still seems possible for us to continually use it as a means to a supposed end – a delusional quest for peace.

Finishing the books has left me with that strange, hollow feeling of finishing something so good it’s hard to find a suitable replacement soon enough. My mind asks, “now what?” Is this what real life feels like? Being wrenched back to reality as the back cover is turned and the Mockingjay is put to rest on the bookshelf is in itself quite a harrowing experience.

I cannot recommend this series enough. It is powerful. Its characters are damaged and scarred; they are not the clinically-clean do-gooders that so many dreadful young adult books portray today. Katniss is not the whiny, self-insufficient female lead that that “other series” depicts. She’s strong, brave, and imperfect. She’s also defiant, and displays moments of teenage angst and rebellion that are befitting of her and her predicament. Like the characters, the plot isn’t without blemishes. The final book, Mockingjay, does leave a lot of questions unanswered. Many disagree about those final events, and the series’ dénouement. Some even argue that the epilogue was unnecessary. But the overall consensus from this avid reader and now a major convert to the franchise is: go and read this series, because it will make you see things and question other things, and hopefully inspire you to become part of the change our world so desperately needs to avoid going the way of Panem.

Ratings (out of 5 ✮s):

Plot: ✮✮✮✮

Characters: ✮✮✮✮½

Setting: ✮✮✮✮✮

Pace: ✮✮✮✮✮

Style/Tone: ✮✮✮✮

Overall: ✮✮✮✮½