This fast-moving adventure tale is the second in a series about four 14-year-olds with special psychic gifts who have been recruited by the British security service. As we join the four, they are established at their north London boarding school and have a back-story of the villains they have already encountered. This time, one of the teenagers, Ketty, is blackmailed when her brother is kidnapped by a sinister computer-entrepreneur threatening to plant a bomb in London if his own brother is not released from prison.
The story beats a frantic path through various locations in north London and the New Forest as characters are held at gunpoint (‘Listen to your brother, or watch him die!’), break into buildings and have last-minute escapes. Each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger and, at one point, The Third Man is evoked as the villain is confronted on the big wheel at a fun-fair on Hampstead Heath. Yet these escapades take place against a background of school-life and youthful angst. The teenagers often regret having psychic powers such as mind-reading and think that they are being exploited by the security service (‘I felt like a monkey doing tricks,’ says one). And the fear that they feel is real: when a gun is pressed against Ketty’s side, she thinks she is ‘going to pee’ herself. Like its predecessor, this book ends with the first chapter of the next book in the series: indeed, Sophie McKenzie says in an introduction that she changed the opening chapter of Hostage in the light of readers’ comments following its inclusion in the earlier book. This retains the readers’ interest and involvement and also provides a change in perspective, because each novel is evidently narrated by a different member of the ‘Project’.
Despite the fantastic events, there is an underlying realism to the characterisation of the protagonists, who are gradually becoming a mutually dependent group in contrast to their dysfunctional families. While the book is, in many respects, an old-fashioned adventure yarn, it reflects contemporary interests like computers and mobile phones, and has the teenagers talk in 21st-century argot. Some of the language, however, seems unsuitable for younger children: while we don’t expect quaint niceties such as the Famous Five’s ‘lashings of ginger beer’, some may feel uncomfortable with the ample helpings here of ‘Shit!’ and ‘Crap!’ For this reason only, the 11+ age-range suggested by the publisher seems too low. Otherwise, this is an exciting and well crafted adventure story.