This week, it’s the turn of Oisin McGann’s ‘Rat Runners’ to fall under the Review-o-Scope…
Four teenage spies, a vast crime network, terrifying surveillance, and a murdered scientist – all the ingredients for a thrilling, twisty adventure story are to be found in the pages of this novel. It’s well written, well plotted, fast-paced and fun; as well as that, it delivers a punch of action right where it’s needed. The high-tech elements in the book, particularly near the end, are brilliantly observed and described, and they’re also – to be frank – monumentally clever.
Nimmo, Manikin, FX and Scope are our unlikely heroes, each of them with their particular skill, each of them surviving without family (besides Manikin and FX, who are brother and sister and live together in a fiercely guarded bunker), and each of them leading an existence outside of the eyes and ears of the law. This last achievement is no mean feat, for in the London of ‘Rat Runners’, to be alive is to be watched. Cameras and recording devices abound, and everyone lives in fear of the creepily described ‘Safe-Guards,’ who have access everywhere and seemingly limitless power to observe, record and dissect your life. The entire city is run by ‘WatchWorld’, who can invade your privacy and peer into every nook and cranny of London and the lives of those who live in it with impunity. One of the things I liked the most about this book was its use of the term ‘rat runners’ – in the world I know, a ‘rat run’ is a shortcut through a city, taken by someone who knows where they’re going. In this book, the term means a route through a city that is as invisible as possible – timed to be just outside of a camera’s sweep, or using shadows and architecture to your advantage – and our heroes are adepts at getting around London like this.
Our four young criminal protagonists are thrown together by crime boss Move-Easy, who requires them to do some work for him. Their task is seemingly simple: find a box which was, until recently, among the possessions of a certain Dr. Watson Brundle. Poor old Dr. Brundle has met a sticky end and the box has, apparently, vanished; the best guess is that it is in the possession of Dr. Brundle’s daughter, Veronica.
How hard can it be to steal it back? Well. Pretty hard, as it turns out.
Not only do the four anti-heroes have to contend with WatchWorld and the Safe-Guards, but they are also being pursued by two rival criminal gangs, including the mysterious ‘Vapour’, a crime-lord about whom nobody seems to know anything. To further complicate matters, a pair of ambitious but incompetent small-time crooks named Punkin and Bunny (think Bonnie and Clyde, minus the charm and intelligence), are continually getting in the way, and they’re bent on revenge against our foursome for an earlier slight. Ingenuity brings our heroes into contact with Veronica Brundle, and sheer guts and brains help them to uncover the truth behind the project her father was working on – a project which, if it fell into the wrong hands, could spell the end of the world as they know it…
This book is so good. I enjoyed every word. Everything about it, from the surveillance state to the technology to the criminal underworld, feels real and believable. The four protagonists are, at all times, seen as individuals with their own skills and talents. As well as this, they are all given a vital role in telling the story and in bringing events to their conclusion; the book could not exist without even one of them. The girls are as brave and strong as the boys, and the boys are as intelligent and quick-witted as the girls. I can’t tell you how much I loved the way McGann handled his protagonists. I was utterly absorbed in the technological reality of the world this novel creates – the CCTV state feels so believable, and the fear of being spied on is something which is already such a part of our world. The book couldn’t be more timely, really – the tech is futuristic, but the mindset is already with us. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and so well written that each character’s voice is clear in the reader’s mind from the first time they are encountered. The baddies are properly scary, and there is something to be wary of in almost everybody. As is to be expected in a place where WatchWorld holds sway, nobody finds it easy to trust anybody else, and this is very cleverly explored in the book.
My absolute favourite thing about ‘Rat Runners’, though, is this: in the world of Safe-Guards, books which contain ideas about freedom and corruption and surveillance and overturning the state are seen as so dangerous that they are banned. Books like Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (‘Ratched’ is even used as the name of a place in the novel, which I thought was a nice touch!) are ‘contraband’, passed from person to person and sold by ‘dealers’ under the noses of WatchWorld. This aspect of the book was such a thrill that I was sorry more wasn’t made of it, but I enjoyed it hugely anyway.
I wish, having said all this, that McGann had made more of the Safe-Guards themselves, and WatchWorld as an entity; the book becomes all about the criminal underworld, which is excellent (of course), but I would have loved to find out the truth behind the Safe-Guards, and the ‘face’ behind WatchWorld. Outside the scope of the novel, perhaps! I also found myself marginally irritated at something which happens to Scope toward the novel’s conclusion, in relation to her ability to see; I completely understand why it’s there, and why it was necessary in terms of the book’s denouement, but I still wish there had been another way to resolve the plot point. There’s also a description of a female character near the beginning of the book which – while totally in keeping with the tone of the character describing her – was, to me, annoying. I had a few small issues surrounding the character of Veronica Brundle, actually, but nothing important enough to stop me enjoying the book.
Overall, this is one of the best YA books I’ve read in a long time. On the question of genre: the storyline is, in my opinion, perfectly appropriate for a children’s book, and in many respects it fits neatly into that category, but some parents might want to be warned about the mild foul language that is used throughout; this probably elevates it to the lofty heights of 12+, which is fair enough. If you are lucky enough to have any young ‘uns of that age hanging around, and they look bored, then shove a copy of this book into their hands before they can pick up their PlayStations, or whatever. They’d be much better served by this wonderful story!
Happy weekend, everyone. Whatever you’re doing, I hope it’s reading.