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.

Descent into Inferno: Thoughts on the new Dan Brown book

After eagerly anticipating the new Dan Brown novel, I finally finished Inferno recently. It was the first time I read a Dan Brown novel over a few weeks (I usually devour these books in a few days, if not less). However, I was busy with a few other things, and I think this fragmented approach to a story that commands attention might be why I initially didn’t enjoy it too much.

However, after completing the 600+ page novel, I must say that I’m impressed. Brown hasn’t lost his touch of edge-of-your-seat action and suspense. Inferno is fast-paced and its backstory is interesting enough to keep your compelled. It even got me thinking deeper about some of the implications hinted at in the story, and I’ve been searching and reading up on the artwork and science that inspired Brown’s storyline.

Inferno is both just like, and unlike, his previous works. That’s a paradoxical statement, I know, but here’s the explanation: firstly, like every Langdon (or, in fact, Dan Brown) novel, we have a hero who’s an expert, brought into the midst of some deadly plot that has serious consequences for humanity. This plot is usually based on some arcane historic artefact or knowledge, and there’s usually heavy religious undertones. The conflict between religion and science is set against this backdrop, and the hero, assisted by an attractive secondary character (also some expert inextricably linked in some way to the initial upset that instigates the hero’s involvement in the plot) is hunted by either the authorities, the bad guys, or sometimes even both. The villain bases his/their plan on the arcane history, of which the expert is indeed able to understand and thus search for clues that get the duo (and the reader, foolish enough to get themselves lost in Brown’s suspenseful writing style) closer to understanding what the hell is going on.

Ok, that sounds a bit mean to Brown – his books are, after all, enormously successful. But you can’t deny that this structure is evident in all four (including Inferno) Langdon books.

But then, Inferno adds a level of twist to the Dan Brown Formula: firstly, it’s not so heavily religion-based as, say, Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code. Instead, it sets a health crisis against the landscape of one of the greatest poems ever written, a definitive epic of the Italian language: Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Specifically, the first part – Inferno. 

Then, the entire plot is laced with elements that just don’t seem to tie-up, until you get the the ending: a conclusion that, for me, made it worth trudging through some of the sometimes predictable scenes. And, as for the scientific angle: it’s to do with world population dynamics.

So, a Dan Brown book about population, Dante’s Inferno, and some plot that involves hunting down Robert Langdon because he knows something that could be potentially lethal (even though the professor can’t recall why he’s even in Florence…)

Sounds intriguing?

Without wanting to give anything away, here’s the basic premise of Inferno: Robert Langdon wakes up in Florence with no recollection of how he got there. Assisted by the pretty but incredibly enigmatic Dr Sienna Brooks, he is on the run from soldiers belonging to someone that is hell-bent on getting hold of him – by any means necessary, it seems. The only thing Langdon remembers is a vague image of an underground cavern with a dark lake filled with writhing dead bodies, and the spectral vision of a woman with silver hair calling out to him: “Seek, and ye shall find.” Oh, and he discovers he’s in the possession of mysterious object that points him to Dante’s Inferno poem, instigating the duo’s search for clues from the Divine Comedy that can give them an idea of what’s going on.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course (this being a Dan Brown novel, its full of twists and surprises). It combines secret organisations, the World Health Organisation, Renaissance art filled with symbolism pointing the way, copious doses of references to Dante’s Inferno, and, of course, a serious threat to our planet. In other words, your typical Dan Brown novel, just with a few more twists that make it a very interesting read.

Parts of it were a bit slow, but despite reading it in bits and pieces over a few weeks, I couldn’t put it down as I got to the final quarter. That’s when things started to get… exciting. Inferno is also set in some great international locales, and the settings themselves add a dynamic that engrosses the reader in the entire storyline. Brown’s managed to make all these seemingly disparate elements of storytelling – setting, plot, the complex science and art that forms Inferno’s framework, intriguing characters – sing together. That’s some skill.

I don’t want to write anymore about this novel; if you’re a Dan Brown fan, you’ll want to read this as soon as you possibly can. Highly recommended for those who enjoyed his previous Langdon novels, although it doesn’t have any references to the previous ones (it could be read as a standalone book).