The CHERUB series was written by Robert Muchamore and focuses on a branch of the English secret service that specialises in training orphans into undercover agents. The original series ran for thirteen books – The Recruit (2004), Class A (2004 – also published as The Dealer and The Mission), Maximum Security (2005), The Killing (2005), Divine Madness (2006), Man vs Beast (2006), The Fall (2007), Mad Dogs (2007), The Sleepwalker (2008), Dark Sun (2008 – novella published for World Book Day), The General (2008), Brigands M.C. (2009) and Shadow Wave (2010). Muchamore has also written Henderson’s Boys – a spin off series about how CHERUB was founded – and a sequel series called Aramov.
Eleven year old James Choke knows that his life will go nowhere. He lives in a council flat in a rough area of London, his mother runs a shoplifting ring and he’s already been expelled from school for hurting a girl in his class. When his mother dies suddenly in the night, he is separated from his sister and sent to a care home. He knows that nothing could get any worse.
However, when a prank played by some older kids ends with James in police custody he finds himself given a second chance. A branch of the MI5 known as CHERUB has become aware of him and is willing to offer him a place at their institute. Here, James will be offered a comfortable home and the best schooling but only so long as he also if he acts as a spy. Criminals are always wary of adults in case they are undercover agents but children are able to easily slip beneath the radar, getting close to low-lives and stealing their secrets in ways that full-fledged agents cannot.
The Recruit focuses on James’s early life at CHERUB, including his grueling 100 days spent in Basic Training and his first ever mission. In Class A, James embarks on an even tougher mission – to infiltrate a London drug gang and find evidence that links wealthy family man Keith Moore to the cocaine trade. Although his job seems simple, it is wrought with difficulties. One false move could easily reveal CHERUB’s existence to the world…or lead to his death.
I have to admit, I had very low expectations when I went into these books. A lot of the reviews I read called it a grittier version of Alex Rider and the thought of that didn’t really hold any appeal to me. While Stormbreaker is a fun story, it lacks any kind of character depth and is really only so endearing because of its tone. My main concern is that, if you took this away, the story would become incredibly dull.
I’m not saying that CHERUB is perfect (more on that shortly) but it is far more engrossing than I imagined it would be. At the end of the day, CHERUB itself really quite a neat idea. While it does seem unlikely that such a thing could actually function (can you imagine that even the British government would actually allow an organisation where children routinely die or get badly injured to exist?), it never feels as though it pushes the boundary of reality too far. Children are viewed as being innocent and can get away with poking their noses in places were adults would look very suspicious. If criminals use children to help them to commit crimes, why shouldn’t it be possible for the MI5 to turn the tables on them?
In terms of story structure, The Recruit felt a little uneven. The start of the novel is rather slow and the final mission also seemed a little mundane. However, the middle part of the novel is absolutely gripping stuff. James’s 100 day boot camp is utterly horrific to read in places (and may be arguably a little too brutal given that its participants are only aged 10-12) but it is the most exciting part of the story. It never feels certain that James will succeed and so tension mounts higher and higher as the days tick by and there is some decent character building, particularly between James and Kerry, as they are forced to band together in order to survive.
Class A is probably a little better structured as the mission starts a lot faster and contains some more exciting sequences, including an incredibly epic moment where James and Kerry take on a rival drug dealer, however it does also contain a lot more sequences of “kids just being kids” which does bog down the story at times. It does also lead to one of my biggest problems with the two stories on the whole and that is that Robert Muchamore just really seems to struggle in writing convincing children.
I’m really not sure how he could have got this so far out. The primary cast of the novels ranges from 9 to about 15 years old, with most being around 11 years of age. However, from the way that they talk and behave, you would imagine them all to be far older. There is a lot of talk about fancying girls (James often comments on how “stacked” a girl is and flirts with everyone he passes, regardless of age difference). There are lots of wild parties and getting drunk and recreational drug taking. Most of the eleven year olds I know don’t think like this at all. They’re not even teenagers yet, they don’t really worry themselves much about the opposite sex and having an active nightlife. Parents should also probably take note about the amount of objectionable activities that James gets up to in this novel, also noting that there is also some violence and bad language. You might want to give these books a once over before giving them to a younger teen.
Yet, despite containing some mature themes, the stories are very simply written which gave me the impression that they were aimed at younger readers. The prose lacks in any kind of description and is always very blunt and to the point. While this did suit this story pretty well as it gave it a strong focus, I did notice some strange choices in the words used. This is possibly a personal grip but Muchamore used an odd mixture of English and American terminology. Words like “tailgate” and “IHOP” aren’t really used in England and all distances were given in kilometres rather than miles, yet at the same time the author uses words like “ratty” and “fit” which are English slang terms. For me, this was a little distracting. It was like the story couldn’t decide if it was written for American teens or English.
The story also didn’t seem to have aged very well, as there are lots of references to technology which now, eleven years on, is rather dated. Computers run Windows ME and have floppy disk drives, while kids play on Playstation 2s and Gamecubes. I know that it’s difficult to write a novel based in the real world without reference to popular culture but these kind of things quickly cause a story to start showing its age. The CHERUB novels are clearly not designed to be timeless.
Yet, my biggest issue with these novels was the character of James. I just didn’t like him at all and he failed to grow on me as the stories progressed. I think that it was mainly because he was in such a privileged position, yet didn’t seem to appreciate it all. He just remained a whiny jerk for the whole story, completely abusing his powers and not really showing any kind of consideration for the feelings of those close to him. In James’s eyes, girls fall into two categories – fit or not fit – and his reaction to finding out that one of his best friends in gay is less than supportive.
On top of this, he is completely amoral. Throughout the two books, James expresses his admiration for people who do horrible things. In The Recruit, he discovers two boys torturing a bird and quickly comes to think of them as being fun guys to hang around. Later, in Class A, he admires some joyriders and expresses a desire to try doing it for himself. He also is almost convinced into snorting cocaine by someone who simply asks if he wants to try. No peer pressure or arm twisting, they merely offer him a straw and he’s all for it. Really, is this the best we could do for a protagonist? He’s supposed to be a spy! He’s supposed to know the difference between right and wrong! Who really thought that it was a good idea to let a boy who his dumb enough to stick his arm into a bio-hazard container into the secret service?
Beyond James, the rest of the characters are a little unmemorable. I liked that the villains in these stories are portrayed as totally normal people with families who love them. They are not visibly monsters and this often causes James to develop ethical issues when dealing with them. This absence of black and white decisions make the choices that James makes more interesting on the whole. However, the other CHERUBs are not very interesting. Kyle is a complete stereotype of a gay man – obsessed with looking good and so incredibly camp that he was obviously a homosexual before he came out. I did really like the two female characters – Kerry and Lauren – but was disappointed that they didn’t get much to do. While Kerry is slightly more active in Class A, throughout The Recruit we are told over and over that she’s really tough but it’s never really shown. I hope that these characters are developed more in future novels as I’d love to see them get more opportunity to kick ass.
Sorry, this review is very long so I’ll wrap up. The Recruit and Class A are relatively enjoyable for light reads despite some problems in the prose and characterisation. I didn’t think that the books were as much fun as the Alex Rider series but they certainly rank higher than Young James Bond. I’ve heard really good things about the next novel – Maximum Security – so it’ll be interesting to see if this series picks up in a future review.
The Recruit can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk
Class A can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk