February 08, 2018
(+++) SURPRISES, AS EXPECTED
Bodyguard 7: Target. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.
Bodyguard 8: Traitor. By Chris Bradford. Philomel. $8.99.
Breakneck pacing, an inexhaustible parade of perils, and an utter lack of characterization or humanization – these are the ingredients of Chris Bradford’s Bodyguard series, which now appears to have concluded, maybe, with Target and Traitor. That is, the series may have concluded in the United States – but it certainly went beyond these books in England, where Chris Bradford lives and works. There are six books in the British series: Hostage, Ransom, Ambush, Target, Assassin and Fugitive. There are eight U.S. books, but they only go through the first four British ones, because the U.S. editions split each British novel into two parts, presumably for pecuniary reasons. So Target and Traitor, in their U.S. incarnation, add up to Target in the original British version.
The publication history is a lot more complicated than the plotting of Bodyguard, which is simply another incarnation of the time-honored “perils of Pauline” approach of multiple threats and constant cliffhangers – all solved by heroic young people, since these are books for young readers. The heroic protagonist of the Target/Traitor duo is a teenage female surfing champion named Charley Hunter, whose assignment is to protect an oh-so-cool rock star named, umm, Ash Wild, who is referred to as “the perfect teen heartthrob.” Bradford, a master of fast-paced, superficial plotting, opens with a bang, or rather with a chomp – Charley saves a boy from a shark attack – and soon gets into the usual training sessions that are de rigueur in books like this, including the obligatory “you’re not good enough and have to go through it all again” scenario. This involves dialogue such as “we’re not playing games here” and “there are no second chances” and “if you get it wrong on an assignment, you’ll be coming home in a body bag.” Other members of Charley’s bodyguard-team-in-training, of course, do not think much of her, and there is some genuinely silly sexism: “What was the colonel thinking when he recruited a girl?” The response to this is some silly reverse sexism: “Female intuition and the element of surprise give us the upper hand.”
Eventually, these premises established, Target/Traitor gets into the meat of its story, which is rather thin gruel but presented entertainingly enough so fans of lightning-speed, comic-book-style violence will enjoy the tale. The Bodyguard 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 threats against Ash Wild are the usual childish stuff, with some references to pig’s blood and a no-surprise play-the-song-backward death-is-coming bit of intimidation. The usual suspects have to be looked at – a disaffected songwriter, Ash’s former girlfriends, a paparazzo in debt to the mob – but of course the plotter cannot be anyone obvious or anyone who could be turned up through everyday channels and procedures. As the plot lurches onward, there are various accidents that may not have been accidents (well, duh), and as Target ends – or, really, simply stops, so readers can start Traitor – the fact that these were not accidents is confirmed, to the surprise of absolutely nobody.
And so the story continues, with Charley learning more and more about celebrity life and becoming familiar not only with Ash but also with movie stars and other entertainment figures – there is plenty of imagined coolness here for readers so inclined. Charley herself also becomes a target of Internet trolling, with rumors that she is involved with Ash leading to problems such as a mysterious threatening message on the mirror in her hotel room. Charley eventually figures out – several hundred pages after readers who pay attention will have figured it out – that “the homicidal maniac was on the tour with them,” and she thinks she knows who it is. That leads to a confrontation scene that, because it happens when there are still plenty of pages to go, readers will know is not the book’s climax or end. In fact, Charley has made a mistake (well, duh, again), but the timely intervention of an expert hacker points her in the right direction at last. Or is it the right direction? There is a battle of bodies that is also a battle of wills, and Charley is again forced to confront the chance that she made an error, until yet another of the deus ex machina events of which Bradford is inordinately fond shows that, yes, this time Charley got it right. Or did she? Bradford does not like to let things go, and has a kind of wheels-within-wheels plot mechanism so that just as readers think matters have been put to rest, something else is pulled out of the authorial hat. And so it is here. There are, in fact, several somethings pulled out of several hats, including one that results in a less-than-happy ending that is by far the most surprising element of Charley’s story. Bradford actually seems to reach for pathos at the conclusion of Target/Traitor, and if he does not quite find it – it is scarcely his strong suit – he does manage, perhaps, to set up future installments of the Bodyguard series. Those already exist in British editions, in fact; whether they too will appear as two-books-instead-of-one versions for U.S. consumption remains to be seen. Or maybe, since Target/Traitor is actually a prequel to the U.S. editions of the earlier Bodyguard books, the bittersweet ending of Charley’s story will have to stand as U.S. readers’ conclusion of the whole sequence. As a song decidedly not by Ash Wild put it back in 1967, “time alone will tell.”