Today I am judging Jason Rybak’s novel, Atticus Crayle – The Accidental Spy.
14-year-old brainy arsonist outcast, Atticus Crayle, makes friends with a fellow outcast, Gemma, only to find out that her uncle, Damon, is a cool super spy. Damon brings Atticus and Gemma along for a spy mission, lots of explosions and gunfire, and the 14-year-olds end up saving the day.
If you don’t remember my star ranking system, please refer back to my explanation in this blog.
I give this novel 3 out of 5 stars. There were definitely some flaws, which I’ll discuss below, but not a bad story.
Plot is all about whether the elements of the story create the desired effect. In essence, it’s a young adult/teen adventure story. With this novel, the sequence of events and the discussions between the characters are supposed to make you relate to them as outcasts. Likewise, you are supposed to grow with them to discover that being an outcast is not so bad, because you get to be a spy.
For the most part, this desired effect is achieved, at least in the middle of the book. The beginning of the book starts off slow to establish the characters. Pacing and speed picks ups nicely during the rising action, but it gets kind of choppy as it reaches the story’s climax, and the slightly awkward pacing continues to the end of the story. All the loose ends are tied up, more or less, so you’re not left wondering what happened.
In terms of does the plot makes sense, there are significant issues with character development and distractions, as described below.
The main character, Atticus Crayle, is oddly constructed. I recognize that I’m an American, and his character is a British kid, so there will be some cultural discrepancies. Nevertheless, I can deal with the fact that he’s brilliant, an outcast, and an arsonist, but other aspects of his character don’t work for me.
He is supposed to be highly athletic and able to take a beating, yet he never pushes back his bullies. I understand that he doesn’t want to start a fight or get into trouble, but if you’re making someone an arsonist, it creates a predisposition toward destruction and vengeance, especially in a hormonal 14-year-old. To me, it felt like the author really needed a brilliant character who was also physically able to keep up with the real spies, and the way that Atticus’ traits were presented just didn’t mesh well.
Speaking of which, Damon the super spy character also appears to have contradicting traits. Despite being presented as the cool, calculative spy, he blatantly puts two 14-year-olds in danger, he allows these teenagers to mingle with a whole network of spies, and he makes mistakes that lead to his capture. How am I supposed to accept him as the perfect spy when he keeps making idiotic mistakes? If he were a recruiter, that would be one thing, but that’s not what his character is set up to do. Instead, his character is pretty much a tool used for the specific reason of pulling Atticus into the spy game.
Damon is also a tool to connect Atticus and Gemma. Luckily, Gemma’s character does have definition. Both she and Atticus provide the male and female teenager perspectives of being an outcast. I also really appreciate that the author gives Gemma room to be emotional without making her overemotional simply because she happens to be a girl. The author has made her a strong character who works as a good partner for the main character. Of course, this instantly puts her in the love interest position, but it’s a young adult/teen book, which means hormones and romance must happen.
All the other characters are cardboard cutouts, like many non-player characters. They are nothing more than quickly described archetypes used for specific purposes, which is a trick ALL writers use. Unfortunately, there are several of these characters, and since they are not well defined, it’s easy to get confused as to which characters are on the side of the good guys, which characters are betraying the good guys, and their underlying motivations all around.
Grammar and Technical Issues
My biggest problem with this book is the fact that it’s in present tense. Yes – you can break the mold and do present tense, but you have to stick with it. There were several times in the book where the tense switched slightly, because present tense got too confusing, but it did switch back. Furthermore, present tense creates a stream-of-consciousness mentality, which was not the focus of this story. It was first person through the eyes of Atticus, and most of the time we were hearing his inner thoughts, but they were presented in a linear fashion that reported the events. I don’t think the first person perspective was enhanced by the use of present tense.
Other grammar issues and typos made me think that the book may not have been edited professionally. I admit that I notice errors more quickly than most people, because of my profession. Still, some of the errors would be noticeable to non-writers.
Besides grammar, there were also technical issues with continuity and action sequences. The continuity errors were extremely minor, and you could easily figure out what the writer meant. Concerning the action sequences, many of them were well-described, but the sequencing became awkward in places. Again, you could follow along and auto correct in your head without a lot of problems, but I think the whole book could’ve used at least one more round with the editor.
I had major issues with some of the action scenes in the early part of the novel. There is no way you can hide a bulletproof vest under the chair of the driver’s seat, let alone pull the vest out while driving and be able to put it on in the midst of a high-speed car chase! I don’t care how thin of a bulletproof vest you have, it’s just not going to happen. Also, some of the ways the cars were hitting each other and the shooting scenes defied physics, but I guess I could excuse it as spy car superpowers.
Atticus’ family life also stuck out. He has no father, and his mother is never home, except when Atticus isn’t around. When she briefly stops by, she drops off badly-wrapped expensive presents. I’m supposed to believe that he is taking care of himself, somehow managing to get specifically healthy food, paying the minimum bills, and keeping the whole truth about his junkie mother hidden from everyone? I know a lot of people who raised themselves because of bad or neglectful parents, but there were many signs that something was wrong.
I guess I can kind of believe that since Atticus is an outcast who never starts trouble that maybe he has slipped through the cracks and no one has caught on yet. Regardless, the whole relationship between him and his mother seems out of place. If she were to have just left, I could deal with that far better than her randomly appearing to leave gifts while her son is not at home. Why would she leave him anything if she doesn’t want to see him? Maybe she’s embarrassed of what she has become, but you don’t get that impression from the narrative.
Lastly, it really took me out of the action when all of these adult spies didn’t seem to care that two 14-year-olds were in the mix. I guess you can argue that all of them have messed-up family lives and started young, but it still seemed peculiar. Personally, if I were one of the adult spies, I would be worried that these kids would make mistakes that would lead to me getting killed.
I know that this novel is aimed at a younger audience, hence the age of the main character, and I’m aware that a younger audience demographic means that I’m supposed to accept these teenagers having access to adult privileges. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t set well with me. There are a few instances where the spies do instruct the teenagers to stay behind, but it comes off more as Damon protecting his niece rather than reasonable adults restricting teenagers from dangerous activities. Also, from a writer’s point of view, the teenagers were left behind deliberately to push them into action, so they could get into position to save the day.
I can at least respect that the writer refrained from having the teenagers beat all of the bad guys. The ending was far more realistic, and it focused on the bad guys treating the teenagers as kids and as leverage. I enjoyed the writer playing with that aspect. While I may have enjoyed how that was treated, it still felt like a distraction that only the bad guys saw the teenagers as liabilities. Yes, the good guys knew more about the teenagers’ skills and what they could handle, but their lack of restraint and willingness to use the teenagers as tools/bait puts their “good guy” status into question.