Monday, September 16, 2013

Happy Hour in Hell and Russian Roulette

   This one's going to be brief, folks. I've got a new job in a lovely bookshop where I am the new victim staff member presiding over the children's and young adult (YA) sections. I joke, of course. You may have gathered that I love children's and YA literature from previous posts here, here, here, here, here... You get the idea. I'm finding reading time, and reviewing time, to be rare commodities these days. Anyway, I have been doing some appropriate reading - the brand new Alex Rider prequel, 'Russian Roulette', and my current read, 'Tinder' by Sally Gardner, due November 7th (more about that one closer to the time!). 
   'Russian Roulette' tells the story of the origins of the sinister assassin Yassen Gregorovich, a recurring foe of Alex Rider's throughout the series. The story unfolds as Yassen reads through his diary - one of his most prized possessions - as he prepares for his opportunity to kill Alex. The diary recounts his childhood in a small industrial town 600 miles from Moscow. His parents work in the local chemical plant, and young Yasha passes time either in school or playing with his friends. One day, soon after hearing some loud and strange noises from the direction of the chemical factory, Yasha's parents arrive home unexpectedly in a strange car. They confess to Yasha that, rather than manufacturing detergents or pharmaceuticals, they have been involved in highly classified government research into chemical weapons. An accident at the plant has resulted in the release of the strain of anthrax on which they were working into the air. Yasha's parents have stolen a dose of the antidote, broken out of the factory, and made their way home in a stolen car to give Yasha the antidote and tell him to run. So begins a terrifying journey to Moscow, where he knows nobody, and sets him on his path towards working for SCORPIA, one of the most infamous criminal organisations in the world, which is where we have seen him throughout the Alex Rider series. 
    'Russian Roulette' is a thrilling and cleverly-plotted exploration of the making of a ruthless assassin. Yasha (who becomes Yassen through being too scared to correct someone), begins the novel as an immensely sympathetic character, having just lost both his parents. It's fascinating to see how far this sympathy takes us along his journey towards becoming that killer (I never completely lost it, and I'm certain a re-read of any of the Alex Rider series in which he appears would now be a vastly different experience to my first reading), and to notice how rational, sensitive, intelligent, and sensible he seems. Yassen was always one of the most interesting characters in the Alex Rider series, and the series' many fans will be queuing up to read this extra excellent installment. 
   The other book I've read this week is the forthcoming second installment in Tad Williams' new urban fantasy series featuring angel Bobby Dollar - 'Happy Hour in Hell'. My thoughts on the first in the series, 'The Dark Streets of Heaven', are here. In case any of you haven't yet read that first book, I'll be as spoiler-free as possible here. Bobby Dollar is an angelic advocate, speaking on behalf of the souls of the recently deceased and arguing for their admission into Heaven, a duty in which he daily comes up against a Hellish counterpart. For this second book, suffice it to say that, for reasons you will have to read 'Dirty Streets' to understand, Bobby Dollar spends a lot of time in Hell. 
   Hell turns out to be, as you might have expected, a pretty horrible place. Williams describes dozens of levels, each uniquely disturbing and disgusting. In one area, 'many of the brackish ponds... were surrounded by the bodies of the damned, purple and bloated but still twitching. Poison didn't kill you in Hell, it just made you suffer and suffer and suffer.' This horror continues throughout most of the novel, with awful demons, payments in blood, slavery, mutation, and torture. It's all so unrelenting that it makes Bobby start to really doubt the justice of the whole system. Whatever horrible things some of these beings did in life, surely it couldn't justify eternity in pain. A couple of hundred years maybe, but eternity? Anyway, as Bobby is having his qualms, so was I - reading through this litany of horror became more of a means to an end (finding out what happens to the character) than a pleasure in itself. It's undeniably well-written and, in a strange way, entertaining, but just really not something I enjoyed reading. I'll certainly be more careful to judge the tastes of a reader before recommending this one, but for anyone who's ok with gruesome horror, this would be a great read!