June 01, 2017
(+++) ACTION! ADVENTURE! NO SURPRISES!
Bodyguard 1: Recruit. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.
Bodyguard 2: Hostage. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.
Bodyguard 3: Hijack. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.
Bodyguard 4: Ransom. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.
The most complex thing involving Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series is figuring out which books are which. The first two are really a single book called Hostage, published in England – where Bradford lives – in 2013, now split in half in such a way that Recruit ends pretty much in the middle of a paragraph (as well as at a high point of the action) and readers must, absolutely must, have Hostage (U.S. edition) to figure out where things are going. Likewise, the second two Bodyguard books in the U.S. are actually a single book called Ransom, published across the pond in 2014 and now unceremoniously (but presumably profitably) split in the same way as the first U.S. pair.
Once you get past the rather odd packaging, what you get in the Bodyguard series is a very skillful transfer of standard-issue martial-arts adventure/fantasy books in which a highly skilled central character is charged with protecting various important (and never very well-fleshed-out) characters from various evil (and never very well-fleshed-out) bad guys. The target audience here is not, however, adults: the books are aimed at readers ages 10 and up, and as such are full of fight, fire and fisticuffs but no major heavy weaponry, no massive amounts of gore, and no significant sex or other inconveniences to the plot pacing.
The idea here is that a 14-year-old kickboxing champion named Connor Reeves is recruited into the usual top-secret organization that needs someone just like him. This is a private-duty rather than government group, and it is charged with protecting teenagers such as celebrities and the kids of politicians and business bigwigs. That means the organization needs top-tier kids to protect the other kids, and that leads to Connor’s recruitment, which will seem inevitable to readers when they find out, as they quickly do, that Connor’s father was himself a super-skilled bodyguard who laid down his life on the job and whom Connor very much wants to emulate (except for the part about dying).
Nothing in the books proceeds in any unexpected way, and this is both a strength (readers will enjoy the novels because they will know exactly what to expect, even without knowing from just which direction just what type of danger will come) and a weakness (the books never make the slightest attempt to break outside the formulas and expectations of their genre). The first two books in their U.S. versions start with Connor’s recruitment and the expected rigors of his training in unarmed combat, hostage survival, surveillance, and blending in so seamlessly that the bad guys will not realize Connor’s abilities until it is too late for them (a recurring theme). Once the basics are out of the way, Connor must protect the teenage daughter of the U.S. president from a terrorist cell. Here are some cell members: “His coal-black eyes bored into Hazim’s as he searched for the slightest evidence of doubt, any flicker of cowardice. Hazim held Malik’s stare. ‘I’m well aware of the dangers, Uncle. And I’m resolved to my calling.’ Malik grinned in satisfaction, licking the stew from his yellow-stained teeth. ‘Excellent.’” That’s about it for characterization – which is scarcely the point here, since Connor himself is a type rather than a believable human being. There are occasional nods here to 21st-century reality and/or political correctness: the president’s daughter is named Alicia Rosa Mendez, and the president is Antonio Mendez. But by and large, names and ethnic origins and backgrounds are there only to fill a small amount of space between the action scenes, which are nicely spaced out and written to keep readers moving right along. It is also important for Connor to encounter people with doubts about him, so he can overcome those doubts. Thus, in his initial outing, he gets a lecture from Dirk Moran, the director of the Secret Service, to the effect that “no young upstart – whose only qualifications are a few weeks’ training and a bodyguard for a father – will jeopardize our mission!” Like many adults in these books, both good guys and bad, Moran talks in pronouncements rather than speech. But, again, character development here takes a seat so far back that it is not even in the same vehicle as the fast-paced, superficial plotting.
So Connor goes about his job of befriending and unobtrusively protecting Alicia as well as possible, even though she is somewhat flighty and inclined to do things that put her in danger (there would be no book, or rather no two-book grouping, if she didn’t). Things get increasingly complicated, of course, with a series of bombings, Alicia’s and Connor’s kidnaping, and the usual inability of supposedly expert adults to take care of things that only Connor can handle. “He was as scared as she was, but he couldn’t allow his own fears to spiral out of control. He had to remain strong – for both their sakes.” Matters eventually get so bad that the President and First Lady can do nothing but pray – yes, Bradford actually says they “sank to their knees and began praying for a miracle.” Connor eventually produces the miracle, and he and Alicia are saved, and he gets some suitable “war wounds” to carry into the future, and a mysterious character who has financed the whole evil operation shows up to prevent the surviving terrorist leader from telling anything to anyone (look for that evil mastermind, or his boss or boss’ boss, to return in a later book!). And eventually Connor gets a nice kiss from Alicia and is headed for his next assignment.
This one involves protecting the twin daughters of someone who is definitely not named Murdoch but just happens to be an Australian media baron (actual name in this adventure: Maddox Sterling). Having faced off against evil on land, Connor in Hijack and Ransom (the third and fourth U.S. books) gets to do so at sea, aboard a yacht, where the bad guys – Somali pirates – are motivated not by ideology but simply by money. Instead of a Secret Service leader condemning Connor’s inexperience and objecting to his presence, this time there is Captain Locke: “‘As captain I have ultimate authority over all matters of safety and security. If you see something suspicious or there is a security breach of any sort, you’re to report it immediately. …I do not want you operating on your own. Do you understand?’” Yes, of course – message sent, message received. Also, message irrelevant, as readers will instantly realize that it will soon prove to be. Connor initially works this case with another guardian, Ling, while the shadowy evil called Equilibrium continues to insert itself – and its poison-delivering pen nib – into minor characters. Then Ling is sent away by one of the media mogul’s twin daughters, for behaving too much like a guardian: Connor “recognized that Ling’s manner might have been abrasive and heavy-handed, but there were genuine threats to the girls’ lives.” But of course the girls will have none of this – especially Chloe, who (like Alicia in the first adventure) feels put-upon and deprived: “My father allows me no freedom at home, and puts me under so much pressure to succeed at school that I need to let off some steam. Otherwise I’ll go stir-crazy.” Chloe thinks the big problem is Emily, who was kidnaped in the past, alerting their father to all the dire possibilities of life even though, gosh, Chloe herself never got kidnaped or anything like that. Then the pirates strike, all the adults are captured and put out of action, and once again it is left to Connor, whom the pirates make the mistake of underestimating, to save the day. This involves betrayals and shootings, with Connor making split-second decisions about good and bad guys, getting shot (but of course not killed!), and at one point being saved from certain death by a mysterious man who “struck [Connor] as a shark who could slip any net” and of course has done exactly that, since there are more books to come. In fact, Bradford is producing the books at the rate of one a year: Ambush came out in 2015 and Target in 2016 in U.K. editions, and both are to be split in two for U.S. consumption. Assassin is due out in the U.K. later this year and Fugitive next year, by which time readers will presumably have learned all about Equilibrium and gotten all sorts of additional insight into the adventures, if not the nearly nonexistent character, of the heroic Connor Reeves.