Since I began my blog, just over a year ago, I have been introduced to authors and publishers that I would never have known about previously through both the wonders of Twitter and word of mouth, and this is a very good example of one such book. Some of the reads that have been drawn to my attention have disappointed me, but others have gone on to be firm favourites. I have to be honest, when I was presented with the opportunity to read this it was a book I had not heard of and I immediately turned to the wonders of Google to find out more in order to decide whether or not to give it a go.
Having read the blurb, my curiosity was piqued. I make no secret of my preference for science-fiction and fantasy books and this looked right up my street with its mention of strange, macabre magic and relentless mechanical assassins. When it arrived on Christmas Eve, I bumped it straight to the top of my TBR pile, diving in on Christmas Day between all of the festive goings on. Once I started, I soon found I was drawn into an exciting and mysterious storyline with echoes of many other books I love, while enjoying a fresh and innovative read that I struggled to put down.
It is fast approaching midnight when we meet Alex, who is trying to finish an essay he should be writing while being distracted by a fox in his garden, the appearance of threatening messages on his phone, a photo of his parents and a toy robot sitting up on his bookshelf. The robot, a new addition to his growing collection, is an old one which has recently been sent to him by his grandfather from Prague, and is one which his grandfather tells him in the accompanying note is special.
Taking it down from its place, Alex turns it over to examine it more closely and cuts himself on one of its sharp edges. After carefully cleaning his blood from one of its eye sockets and keyhole with a tissue, he experiences the most bizarre sensations. As the room becomes colder and dimmer, Alex becomes aware of the room around him changing and finds himself seeing his body from above before blacking out.
It is not until the following morning that he regains consciousness – when his mother wakes him still sitting at his laptop, handing him breakfast and warning him he has 10 minutes until he needs to catch his bus to school. As he rushes to get ready, his mother hands him his completed essay – an essay he has no recollection of either completing or printing out. Deciding that he must’ve been so tired he didn’t really know what he was doing, Alex rushes out with it and after a near-miss with the bus, finds himself a seat where he is swiftly joined by his friend David. As David tells him that their teacher is sure to love his essay, an embarrassed Alex stuffs his homework into his bag and is stunned to see the robot nestled inside. Taking it out, he starts to shows it to his friend but unfortunately for Alex, some of the other children onboard are a lot less friendly than David and they start to mock them.
Ring leader Kenzie grabs the robot and starts to tease Alex quite cruelly before he also cuts himself on the toy. Alex manages to remain calm and very politely tells Kenzie he would like him to give the robot back, which he does without any fuss. Amazed by what he has just witnessed, David asks his friend how he has done this but Alex has not got the faintest idea what has happened.
After school, a vengeful Kenzie pounces on Alex and starts to beat him up, blinding him by pulling his hood over his eyes. As suddenly as the attack starts, it stops and when Alex uncovers his face he finds a stunned Kenzie lying on the ground having been overwhelmed by Alex’s grandfather, who then very calmly sends him on his way before telling a bewildered Alex that he is in need of fish and chips. Following this, the two of them return home and after demolishing a plate of biscuits, the old man suggests to Alex that he takes the robot to Paris to be properly identified by Harry – a friend of his – telling Alex that he cannot go too because of school.
That night, Alex is woken up by strange whirring sounds and on switching on his light finds that he is under attack from two small, malevolent robots he has never seen before. Appearing in the nick of time, Grandad bursts through the door and swiftly despatches the toys before telling Alex to pack a bag and leave a note for his mother telling her that he is heading to Paris after all.
As they make their way to see Harry, it becomes clear that there are others interested in the robot and that it is more than merely an old toy. It soon becomes too dangerous to remain in Paris and Alex finds himself hunted by a variety of unknown enemies – human and mechanical – as he slowly unravels the true purpose of the robot and tries to defeat those who would use it for nefarious ends.
The premise of the story is a familiar one – a protagonist has a mystery object which is highly desired and is chased by an enemy or enemies who hope to gain it. What sets this apart is the combination of the fast pace and inventive narrative which had me gripped from the start.
Unlike many stories, where there is an awful lot of preamble, after a very short and scary prologue we are soon in the thick of the action – and there is a lot of action to be had here. Although much of it obviously involves Alex, his grandfather is an incredibly dynamic individual and has clearly done lots of fighting in his time. Although we don’t get to find out about most of his prior experiences until quite late in the book, neither does Alex which means that he – and we – must place his blind faith in the old man, something which it is not always clear he should be doing.
Most children are lucky enough to have grandparents and the relationship between the generations is frequently a deeply powerful one. My own children got away with murder when my in-laws looked after them but here that relationship is almost flipped on its head. Grandad spends much of his time seeking out food and frets over his appearance like many teenagers do and these character traits make him both much more credible and more likeable. Whether or not we are right to like him remains to be seen because there is an awful lot he is not telling Alex – secrets about Alex, his father and himself, which we will hopefully have revealed to us later in the series.
Alex too is a deeply mysterious character. Although he appears at first glance to be fairly ordinary, there has been something which has affected him in his early childhood which is hinted at but never fully explained and while we only meet his mother in passing very early on in the book, I am sure that she knows more about it than she has revealed to him thus far and will become a key player in the story as it continues.
Book Two – The Shadow Arts – is due on 20th May and it promises more of the same thrills and action that were delivered here. I am sure that there are many children of Year 5 and above who will love both books and a great many older ones too. I am hugely indebted to Oneworld Publications for my gifted copy of Monstrous Devices, received ahead of publication by Rock the Boat on April 1st. A magnificent 5 out 5 stars