W.A.R.P. Book 1 : The Reluctant Assassin, by Eoin Colfer, 352 pp, RL : MIDDLE GRADE

W.A.R.P. Book 1: The Reluctant Assassin is the new series from Eoin Colfer of Artemis Fowl fame. When I was a bookseller, Colfer's Artemis Fowl series was never a hard sell, but I did get tripped up trying to describe it to potential customers. I would start off by talking about Artemis, the eleven-year-old child genius who is also a criminal mastermind. In order to rescue his father, Artemis decides to steal the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But, he has to crack the fairy code in a book he stole first. Then I would move on to the fairies in the book, but I would have to explain that these were in no way Disney fairies, these fairies have crazy technology (invented and maintained by a centaur) and they have a deadly serious police force. Then, if I still needed to win this reader over, I would talk about the amazing characters Colfer created - Butler and Juliet and Holly and LEPrecon Commander Julius Root. Having read/listened to Colfer's newest book, I find myself in a similar situation, having to explain some of the seemingly less appealing aspects of the novel in order to (possibly) convince readers of the amazing, underlying aspects of this (once again) truly phenomenal novel. Not that Colfer really needs it. He has a huge audience and deservedly so. However, I sense that some readers of my blog might not be part of this huge audience and might have sensibilities that would make this book seem unsavory. It is for you that I write this review.

The title, The Reluctant Assassin, should tip you off to what this book is about. When the story begins, we find ourselves in Victorian London where young Riley and his mentor/master, Albert Garrick, hide in the room of an elderly, sleeping man. This is to be Riley's first "job," and Garrick, a master magician and illusionist who has taken his skill at slight of hand and turned himself into a highly successful assassin,  has trained the orphaned boy to follow in his footsteps. When Riley, who desperately wants not to do this job and has tried to run away from Garrick several times before, cannot go through with the kill, Garrick places his hand over the boy's and does it for him, stabbing the man. There, I said it. The old man gets a knife in his chest, as do several other characters in The Reluctant Assassin. And this is described, if not in lengthy detail, then writerly detail. People, including the teen protagonists, get beat up. There are descriptions, mostly from the tormented, deviant mind of Garrick, of these acts that proved somewhat disturbing to me, a person who goes out of her way to avoid intentionally allowing these images into my consciousness. Had I known that this would be a rich vein in the book, I probably would have chosen not to read/listen to it, despite the fact that I think Colfer is a genius. And yes, the title SHOULD have tipped me off. But he's reluctant - he doesn't go through with killing, right? I just didn't realize that the character of Garrick would, and often. So, why am I reviewing this book? Because The Reluctant Assassin is SO well conceived and written, the characters so complex and wonderfully drawn, that I cannot get it out of my head, days after I have finished with it. I actually listened to it a second time because it was a story I wanted to hear again, but also in part because the narrator is FANTASTIC and a revelation. Maxwell Caufield, hottie from my adolescence (Grease 2, anyone?) has grown into a brilliant narrator, on par with Jim Dale (Harry Potter narrator extraordinaire), creating almost as many varied character voices in The Reluctant Assassin as Dale did within the Potterverse. And, despite Garrick, I anxiously await the next installment, due out in 2014.

A gifted writer, I believe, can make you read a story you otherwise wouldn't have and love it. Colfer is definitely gifted. Colfer's writing for the parts of The Reluctant Assassin set in Victorian London are so rich with detail and character that they are on par with any of the best adult novels set in this time period - quite a few of which I have read. The other parts of The Reluctant Assassin, set in the present day, are stunning as well, especially Colfer's character named Agent Orange. Colfer creates rich and complex characters, from Agent Orange, who is memorable despite his brief appearance in the book, to the truly horrible Albert Garrick. Colfer offers glimpses into Garrick's past that, to a certain degree, explain his present thoughts and actions, wether they are blackhearted or, on the very rare occasion, kind. Riley, the Victorian orphan, has that cheerful Dickensian survival instinct and ingenuity that most child protagonists from this literary era seem to posses, but Colfer makes sure that he is so much more. Revelations over the course of the novel give depth to the fourteen-year-old Riley as his strengths and weaknesses are revealed. I can't wait to spend more time with Riley, especially knowing where Colfer left him at the end of The Reluctant Assassin. Colfer gives the seventeen-year-old Chevron Savano an equally detailed, and sad and lonely, backstory and she is, in many ways, a modern mirror image of Riley. Also, an orphan, details of her family history have been altered or hidden from her and she looks to a new paternal figure - in this case the FBI - for direction. While I don't think that Colfer has a problem writing female characters - Holly Short from Artemis Fowl is a rich character - but I felt like Chevy lacked the depth of detail to make me like her as much, if not more, than Riley, which is what I was hoping for. However, I think Riley really is the star of The Reluctant Assassin and maybe the tables will turn in the next book in the series.

As for the superb plot, Colfer has created a method of time travel does not require a willing suspension of disbelief. As Marcus Sedgwick writes in his review of The Reluctant Assassin in The Guardian,

As for time travel, Colfer neatly sidesteps the potential "why-don't-they-just-travel-back-five-minutes-before-such-and-such-happens?" question that is often all too easy to level at a certain long-running television series. Here time travel is only possible through pods connected to the ends of a wormhole of a fixed length – as the future end moves forward through time, the end in the past is moving forward, too, thus preventing writers' nightmares.

While I don't understand much about quantum anything, time travel in books and movies often leaves me with nagging questions that sometimes distract me from the story but this never happened even once as I read The Reluctant Assassin. The time travel in The Reluctant Assassin is centered around W.A.R.P., an acronym for Witness Anonymous Relocation Program. The present day protagonist in The Reluctant Assassin, one Chevron Savano, was recruited as a fifteen year old foster child into a secret wing of the FBI dedicated to infiltrating terrorist cells that might be forming in the high schools of America. When Savano ends up protecting the completely innocent Iranian teens she is supposed to be tailing from violent, racist classmates, a misunderstanding gets her sent to England as part of the even more secretive WARP program. Sequestered in a house in London with Agent Orange (not his real name, but brilliantly funny nonetheless), she is essentially babysitting a giant metal pod in the basement. When the pod goes berserk, causing a massive power outage in the city and Riley and the dead man emerge from it, she knows that she's not just babysitting anymore. Trained well, physically and mentally, Chevy is prepared for whatever this means, and she quickly finds out when she reads Orange's files. The pod is connected to a wormhole, the other end somewhere in Victorian London, and the FBI has been using this means of time travel as a sophisticated witness protection program on the assumption that a snitch can't be killed before trial if he's in another century. However, the inventor of this method of time travel became increasingly unhappy with the FBI's use of his creation and shut the system down, trapping (presumably) himself and an elite squad of American military men in 1898. And a witness and his guard.

How the threads of these various stories weave together is brilliantly delicious, as is the epilogue to The Reluctant Assassin, which sets up the next book. There are so many fantastic characters and twists that I want to share here, but I don't want to ruin even one of the surprises in this incredible book.  There is one character especially that I wish I could talk about - definitely an expression of Colfer's knock-out sense of humor - and someone I hope to see in the next installment, which will be titled: W.A.R.P., Book 2: The Hangman's Revolution. I can at least tell you his name - Tibor Charismo. Ha!

The UK cover for The Reluctant Assassin.

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