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.


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).


Every so often, one comes across a book that is truly worthwhile. That leaves you with a feeling of fulfillment upon completion. There are only a few of these kinds of books that I’ve experienced, and Anthony Horowitz’s finale to the chilling Power of Five series, Oblivion, was part of that select group.

It is dark. It is depressing. It is horrifying  And at the same time, it is filled with hope: there is no doubt that the entire series is written, in a way, as an allegory of hope for the future, and of the next generation’s responsibility to protect our future.

Narrative-wise, it is lengthy. At 668 pages, it’s a hefty read, but an enjoyable one. I feel that in places, it could’ve been shorter. There were parts that got agonizingly slow, but they were made up for by the copious edge-of-your-seat action sequences.

The story is a good continuation from the previous four books, but it is able to stand out as a tale of its own. Horowitz manages to easily integrate retellings of previous events, easing readers into this much-anticipated conclusion.

The conclusion itself is quite worth it. Without wanting to give away details, it has some unsuspecting surprises, and some obvious takes that were clearly being built-up in the final parts.

The very final bit, the epilogue (or “Envoi”) was a nice touch. But it is clear that this series is over, and it has been a great ride throughout. If you’re a fan of Anthony Horowitz’s writing, and a long-time investor in the series, this is definitely a must-read for you.

Horowitz is expected to return to the Alex Rider universe next, with the standalone novel tentatively titled Yassen.