You have got to hand it to Michael Grant - the guy has CHOPS.
I started reading his stuff with the first GONE novel. "Terrific premise," I thought. "Great staging of the classic civilization-reboot-in-the-hands-of-the-children plot." And then, "Jeez that's some STRONG horror. This guy pulls no punches."
Then I read The Call, the first entry in his middle-grade series, The Magnificent 12. I described that book as "Michael Grant popping the top off his can of funny." It's like entry-level Douglas Adams: I hand The Call and The Trap to any kid who answers 'yes' to the questions, "adventure?" and "funny?"
Now for BZRK. This is sci-fi set in the real world: non-dystopian secret-agent-type sci-fi, gritty, dark, and extra-violent. Teenagers are recruited to fight battles so surreptitious that they are invisible to the naked eye.
Both sides of the conflict utilize methods that are extremely morally suspect, and they know it. Characters die - likable characters die. The whole "trust no one" edict of spy novels is jacked up a quantum level, although explaining how this is achieved might be something of a plot spoiler - and for the record, because I know Michael Grant is reading this, because he always does - I expect that this aspect will be exploited more fully in the next novel.
There are a couple pleasures of logic in BZRK that are worth mentioning.
- First: why is it teenagers? This is a problem in many novels of suspense written for young readers. (Really, Anthony Horowitz? MI-6 needs a 14-year-old agent?) Grant resolves that one pretty well, arguing rarity of required skills + short life expectancy of people who utilize them.
- Next: does the tech work? Well, of course not. But any reader of MIT Technology Review is going to see the tech in this novel as an acceptable stringing-together of recent advances in nanotechnology, neurology, and DNA splicing. Add a jolt of electricity, and voilà: it lives!
And then there's Grant's willingness to set up a plot premise and then head straight for that premise's most jaggedy edges. You even see this in the old Animorphs series, written by Grant's wife, Katherine Applegate, but which I believe he had a collaborative hand in. Those books do not shy away from the ickier aspects of transforming into certain animals. "The dreaded Fly Morph," for example: extremely useful, but extremely unpleasant.
In BZRK, which puts direct brain manipulation into the hands of young people, you want to know where we go? Where does any young man go? That's right. Sex. Both good guys and bad guys artificially induce desire in female subjects. I'd be pretty pissed about this (the outraged feminist in me always lurking right below the surface), except that these actions predicate meditations on intent and responsibility that are among the more sophisticated emotional passages in the book, nearly edging BZRK out of teen-novel territory. Sex among teenagers is not - I think - as fraught as this.
Speaking of my semi-submerged outraged feminist: some people, including myself, have criticized the depiction and roles of the women in Grant's books, finding them flat and under-utilized. BZRK has several female characters, including one main character, and they're fine. They kick butt. Maybe they don't express themselves as convincingly as the boys do - the fullest portrait of that lead girl is provided by her brother - but this is something that many male writers work on their entire lives.
And in fact, if the supporting women in BZRK seem a little comic-booky or sketched - one is feminine, one is trashy, and one is a little psycho - well, it's an action novel: so do most of the men. Read some John Irving if you want richly nuanced women. Or... wait. Anybody remember Jenny Garp? John Irving doesn't manage it either.
I think, if I have a criticism, it's going to have to be about the villain(s), a pair of conjoined twins with an all-consuming vision for humanity, unlimited resources, and not a sane brain cell between them. I get why the villains are conjoined twins - their goal and their condition are inseparable (and harken back to the ant morph from Animorphs) - but, like the Mütter Museum gift shop, which stopped selling their Chang and Eng shot glasses emblazoned with the words "Make mine a double," I find myself uncomfortable mining physical deformity for its metaphorical implications.
BZRK is another piece of standout action from an author who never seems to tire of putting young people through their paces. It ends at a satisfying juncture, but left me very interested in reading the next book.