Sunday, 19 May 2013

Revisiting the Old Flame: Robert Muchamore

Robert Muchamore - Guardian Angel (#2 Cherub: Series 2)

Disclaimer: This isn't really a review of the book above, so much as a rant about the series based on reading the above book recently.

I remember my first encounter with Robert Muchamore in much the same way as I remember my first encounter with J.K. Rowling. I was twelve years old, staying in a B&B in Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man. I'd run out of things to read on my holiday. So face either with Dickens, Bronte and Hardy available at the B&B, or with the exciting prospect of a trip to the bookshop, I chose the latter. Twenty minutes later I emerged, clutching a bright orange book with CHERUB: The Recruit blazoned across it. It was about child spies. It had the odd swear word. It was the coolest thing my young reading eyes had ever seen.

Fast forward nine years, the entire Harry Potter series, and a new found love of speculative fiction, and I've read every one of Muchamore's CHERUB series. Constrained by (kind of) realism, his first protagonist, James Adams, is done away with after 12 books - graduating from Cherub an adult. Clearly unable (or unwilling) for whatever reason to put the success away,  Mr. Muchamore has progressed to a 'Series 2' - a la TV serials. This time, it features Ryan Sharma, a half-Russian CHERUB recruit, slightly older than James is when we first encounter him, battling against the Aramov criminal gang, a Kazakhstan-based smuggling and drugs ring.

It is interesting to read Guardian Angel as an adult. Its even more interesting to realise quite how disappointed I was when I realised it was out and couldn't find it in my local Waterstones. The series has, arguably, had the biggest effect on me through my childhood of any bar probably Harry Potter. Why is it, then, that I would struggle to name the plot of most of the books, let alone the characters?

Lets examine this: Muchamore's CHERUB is an exiting ride, thrilling in a genre where his only competitors at the time were Anthony Horowitz and Charlie Higson (both of whom I also read - and the first of whom I could do plots for with ease, despite the fact I read them at a similar ages: 12 or 13). It posits an interesting world where there are child agents that can, realistically, discover as much, if not more, than adult agents - by making friends with the children of criminals, by infiltrating groups as people do not suspect them by virtue of their being children. It allows for the slow-build of relationships, the troubles of teenage years, the growth of friendships, all vital to the growing up process, to be explored expertly.

However, where it falls is almost certainly the writing. Compared to Horowitz's prose, or even Rowling's, Muchamore is blunt, to the point; methodical and getting the job done, sure, but not as memorable, or as poignant as the others. Instead, possibly as a result of the pressure of releasing at least two books a year, Muchamore hammers out writing and plots that, like later Alex Ryder books get increasingly far-fetched and escapist, focusing more on missions and less on relationships. As the CHERUB books got further in their series, I began to empathise much more with secondary characters: James' sister Lauren, her boyfriend Rat. These are less fleshed out, sure, but have more interesting dynamics, are less run-of-the-mill characters, seem less of a Mary Sue. Ryan Sharma and James Adams, our main protagonists over the course of the two series, are basiccally interchangeable - attractive white men, friends with 'outsiders' (in James' case a homosexual, in Ryan's a Chinese girl), who will invariably save the day as the PoV characters integral to the mission show their prowess in the face of ever-more-unlikely danger, yet have some fatal flaw that only James/Ryan can withstand.

Couple this with the boys-own style, with women described by their 'great tits' and how 'hot' they are, and you have a recipe for a series that runs downhill. Yes, teenage boys are mainly interested in tits, and so yes it does depicct a sort-of-realism, but should we be encouraging this? Teenagers, especially those from about 13-16 (which sseems to me the ideal age range of these books) are already wankers enough without a bestselling book encouraging it. The early CHERUB season 1 books allowed for varying views of sexuality, though porblematically stereotyped, in Kyle. Lauren and Rat's long-term relationship is interesting and complex. James and Ryan shag around. Why can't we have an interesting main protagonist who's sexual ideals of teenage life do not revolve around 'Boobs?! Where???' *goggles*. Why can't Muchamore provide a female perspective on sex and sexuality, the worries of men about performance or whether or not its going right, or whether she's enjoying it as much as he? Muchamore has a palette of different colours to choose from by virtue of his creation of the CHERUB campus, and fails to go further than different shades of his own blue.

This I could forgive in a three book series, but not in 14 books. At least one should go beyond the, ironically, adolescent imagery and attempt to push into interesting moral territory. Instead we witness cookie-cutter scenarios where the good guys are clearly differentiated as white and male and heterosexual, and they will save the world from the brown and Russian and homosexual and religious and earth-hugging terrorists. Muchamore's works have stuck with me, and influenced me, sure: they are exciting for the boy in me, stuff blows up, guns are handled, these guys speak different languages, know martial arts, are physically fit in ways I could never be. They were the ultimate escapist fantasy. It's just I'm not sure I still want them to be the escapist fantasy for those following me.

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