When I was a kid, through to my mid-teens, I wanted to be a secret agent. No doubt in my mind, when I grew up, I was going to have a license to kill, wear a suit and dark glasses, drink martinis (shaken, not stirred) and craftily swap briefcases full of… well, that’s classified. I devoured each new Alex Rider book (I’ll have to review that series later) but I was always aware that Alex was an exception; no other 14-year-old would ever be allowed to be a spy until they’d done some growing up first. At the time, this seemed a terrible injustice as opposed to a reasonable safety precaution. Then I discovered CHERUB.
I don’t actually recall how The Recruit (the first installment of the series) made it into my possession in the first place. I choose to believe that it was smuggled into my bag by a mysterious stranger, perhaps after a cryptic exchange now wiped from my memory.
“Do you like chipmunks?” they may have begun, and I, always ready with the proper coded response, would have replied,
“The mongoose is more common in India.”
“Ah, but may not the manatee migrate to Malta?”
“Er… may it?!” I was fortunate enough to stumble on the proper answer, it seems, for sure enough, there I was, proud owner of a copy of The Recruit by Robert Muchamore. [Or maybe you picked it up in a bookshop. Get on with it. -Ed.]
Right. Wanderers, I’ll level with you – I love this series. It’s well-written, action-packed, informative and surprisingly relatable. It’s also one of the few series I enjoy despite almost constantly wanting to punch the protagonist in the face. So what’s it all about?
Well, the eponymous CHERUB is a top-secret organisation – a part of British Military Intelligence – that uses children to slip under the radar for those tight jobs adult agents can’t quite fit into. After all, the logic goes, criminals have been using kids to do their dirty work for years; adults never suspect that kids are spying on them.
The Recruit introduces us to James, swiftly orphaned and with a knack for getting himself in trouble. His resourcefulness in smuggling a wad of his late Mum’s ill-gotten cash into his new Children’s Home does not go unnoticed by his roommate Kyle, who promptly refers him to CHERUB as a potential new recruit.
The rest of the series follows James as he joins hundreds of other kids – aged 10-17 – who have to deal with mission briefings on top of their Maths homework, not to mention all the usual struggles of adolescence. Yes, you’ll probably want to take a swing at James for at least 90% of the story – he’s very much a realistic teenage boy, with all the character flaws that entails – but his friends are more than awesome enough to do that on the reader’s behalf, and Kyle, Kerry, Bruce and Lauren (to name but a few) have a tendency to make up for James’ worst moments.
What’s so interesting about this series, really, is the group dynamic. Stories with comparable themes, such as the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz and Charlie Higson’s Young Bond – both of which feature youngsters going on missions – focus on one exceptional youth, a one-off. In CHERUB, however, Muchamore takes the idea to its logical conclusion and builds a whole vibrant campus full of pint-sized secret agents, fleshing out a bureaucracy and even a certain mundanity in these kids’ lives. If the British Government really did use kids as spies, I imagine this is exactly what it would look like.
My favourite thing about CHERUB, though, is the almost total lack of gadgetry on your standard mission. When Kerry Chang finds herself about to be caught in a room she has no reason to be in, she can’t just cut her way out with a diamond-edged toothbrush; the kids rely much more on quick thinking and good acting skills to get by.
So, all in all, I’d recommend these books, especially for 14-17 year-olds, who’ll cope with the less palatable details and recognise the normal teenage issues facing the characters. It’s educational, thought-provoking, and a lot of fun.
I’d give the series 4 out of 5, mostly because James can be really quite irritating.
Eleanor Musgrove (for official purposes, I do not exist)
For more information about the series, as well as other CHERUB-related books, check out CHERUB Campus online.