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The boy wonder

Ark Angel A Novel Anthony Horowitz Philomel Books: 326 pp., $17.99

May 21, 2006|Susan Carpenter | Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

HE'S only 14, but already he's battled a crazed computer magnate, a maniacal geneticist, an evil Army man, a trigger-happy assassin and a group of cold-blooded terrorists. His name is Rider, Alex Rider, and for tween and teen readers who may not know the inspiration for this action-adventure series, books about the 14-year-old British spy offer all the outrageous scenarios and gadgets of the James Bond novels and movies -- without the foxy ladies and the sex.

"Ark Angel" is Anthony Horowitz's sixth in the Alex Rider series, which began in 2001 with "Stormbreaker." In that book, the schoolboy-turned-spy is a reluctant recruit into the M16 Special Operations Division -- selected for his youth as well as the bravery and resourcefulness he displayed in finding his uncle's killer. With each successive book, Rider seems to be adjusting to his new life outwitting obscenely rich psychopaths bent on destroying the world.

When we catch up with Rider in "Ark Angel," he is in the hospital recovering from the sniper fire that came within millimeters of his heart in the previous novel, "Scorpia." Readers who haven't kept pace with the books are quickly brought up to speed through the get-well cards he's received; each introduces a recurring character and some back story. Among them are Alan Blunt, the humorless M16 executive who recruited Rider to complete the spy mission his uncle hadn't finished, and Smithers, the gadget guy like Bond's "Q," whose card bursts into flames after uttering the greeting, "Hope you get better, old chap."

We also meet a 14-year-old asthmatic in the hospital room next door. Paul Drevin is the only son of Nikolai Drevin, a Russian multibillionaire who made his money in oil and is now funding construction of the world's first space hotel, the Ark Angel.

The older Drevin's activities have attracted the ire of eco-terrorist organization Force Three, which dispatches four thugs to kidnap Drevin's hospitalized son. Rider learns of the plan and, despite having recently undergone surgery, takes the boy's place. Rider doesn't have a gun, but what he lacks in firepower he makes up in quick thinking and ingenuity. He incapacitates the grown-up goons -- only to be knocked out, kidnapped and left for dead in a locked room of a burning high-rise.

Of course, he escapes. The sinister plot is only beginning to thicken; Rider, a self-described trouble magnet, has about 250 death-defying pages to go.

Sedentary activities such as reading seldom result in a steady trickle of stress hormones, but "Ark Angel" is so fast-paced and action packed, it almost reads like a narrative version of "The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook." Readers may find themselves hyperventilating as they flip through the pages to discover Rider trapped in a sunken ship with his oxygen tank on empty; power kiteboarding across the sea, flanked by speed boaters firing machine guns; or crammed inside a rocket ship, jettisoning through space.

One reason the book is so fun to read is that it's recounted in near cinematic detail by Horowitz, who is also a screenwriter and playwright in his native London. He has an Ian Fleming-esque talent for dreaming up timely, imaginative and far-out plots, but he also has a mind for science. Rather than skim over the technical details of imagined scenarios and devices, he investigates how they might actually work and conveys that understanding in detail without sacrificing any suspense. The result is an ongoing subliminal science lesson as much as an escapist, entertaining read.

When Rider must walk a rope hanging between two buildings, we learn why a long pole helps maintain balance. When he's aboard the Ark Angel and trying to move in a weightless environment, he recalls a physics lesson that taught him a forward motion also produces an opposite reaction, "a bit like the recoil from a gun."

Being 14 and British, Rider isn't especially big, nor is he athletic, and M16 hasn't issued him a gun. In deadly and seemingly hopeless situations, he relies on his wits -- and, as Bond-like spies are apt to do, intriguing gadgets. In "Ark Angel," an asthma inhaler releases knockout gas, rather than medicine, and an iPod is also an eavesdropping device.

Both gadgets are used to thwart Nikolai Drevin, who, it turns out, isn't merely rich. He's also wanted by the CIA for being one of the world's most ruthless criminals. His Ark Angel project is so over budget it's threatening to bankrupt the Russian multibillionaire. Instead of leaving the half-built, high-concept hotel floating as space junk, he wants to blow it up and send its remains plummeting toward the Pentagon, where the government is storing its case file against him.

Characters are murdered in the book, and although Horowitz does not dwell on the gory details, there may be more deaths than some parents feel comfortable with, especially for readers at the younger end of the spectrum. Philomel, which publishes the series, says the books are for readers as young as 8.

At that age, even Bond probably wouldn't have been exposed to so much evildoing. But the world today is a lot different than it was in 1953, when Fleming created Agent 007. For a new generation of readers, Alex Rider is today's James Bond -- a perception that is likely to grow this summer when "Stormbreaker," the new Weinstein Co. film based on the first Alex Rider book, hits theaters. Whether "Ark Angel" will eventually see the same treatment remains to be seen, but the book, like the others in the series, does Bond more than ample justice. *

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