January 02, 2014


The 39 Clues: Unstoppable—Book One: Nowhere to Run. By Jude Watson. Scholastic. $12.99.

The 39 Clues: Unstoppable—Book Two: Breakaway. By Jeff Hirsch. Scholastic. $12.99.

     The 39 Clues is such a phenomenon at this point that calling the latest sequence of books Unstoppable seems inevitable (in fact, maybe the next sequence should be called Inevitable). The structure of this interactive multimedia series and of the books within it is now firmly established. Each book contains six trading cards; each card unlocks one online clue upon entry of the code appearing on the card. Within the books, the primary approach is adventure and the secondary one is history, since the Cahill family – which is at the center of all the novels – turns out to include or at least have interacted with practically every famous person that readers can think of or about whom they will learn in the course of the books.

     The books themselves change points of view frequently, allowing readers to see the story developing from multiple angles. Characters are one-dimensional and generally have comic-book-like motivations when they have any at all, but characterization is not a significant element in this universe: action and complex (but not too complex) plots are what The 39 Clues is all about. Unstoppable is the third series, and the authors of the first two books are quite comfortable with this sort of plotting and pacing. Nowhere to Run is by Jude Watson, an old hand at these books: he wrote Beyond the Grave, In Too Deep and part of Vespers Rising in the first sequence and A King’s Ransom in the second. Watson is responsible for the overall story arc of Unstoppable. The second book in this sequence, Breakaway, is by Jeff Hirsch, who is new to The 39 Clues but has clearly absorbed the authorial approach that the books require.

     The nefarious doings here affect an older and somewhat more seasoned Dan Cahill (now 13) and Amy Cahill (now 16). Unstoppable dips into the whole reason for the existence of The 39 Clues: those clues refer to 39 ingredients in a serum that, like the “one ring to rule them all” in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth but without the inevitable darkness, will turn the possessor into the most powerful person on the planet. Inevitably there is darkness following the serum and its keepers – currently Dan and Amy – around, and that is the underlying plot mover of Unstoppable. In Nowhere to Run, an unscrupulous presidential candidate named J. Rutherford Pierce attacks Amy and Dan, steals the serum and plans to conquer the entire world. Readers who do not find this silly – merely absurd – will enjoy Amy’s and Dan’s attempt to find an ingredient for an antidote to the serum, a quest that is predictably world-spanning (Australia, New York City, Dublin, London, Istanbul, the inevitable “undisclosed location,” and so on). The tale is told with the usual hyperbole: “It had never happened before. Never, ever, ever. Nobody had ever done it and many had tried.” The dialogue is just what readers will expect, too: “This feels way sketchy to me.” “Come on. There’s no time.” “C’mon, kiddies, we don’t have all day.” Nothing is particularly original here, and nothing is supposed to be: Nowhere to Run does a good job of sending Amy and Dan on their latest quest to places known and obscure, for appropriate save-the-world purposes, as their ill-intentioned opponents seek to outmaneuver them.

     And Breakaway keeps things going nicely, as Dan and Amy realize that the power of their precious serum can be used against them and they must journey to the ends of the Earth – just about literally, since the book’s settings range from the equatorial to the Arctic – to try to prevent disaster. Again there are the expected sorts of descriptions, comments and thoughts: “You may be strong and fast, but it’s time to see which one of us is smart.” “Every inch of her body throbbed with pain.” “There’s no way I’m letting these people down.” “Time to go to war.” “Who’s the bad guy? You? Or me?” Actually, the question of good guys and bad guys gets a touch more complicated than usual in this book, since the plot twist here involves Dan apparently being betrayed by the one ally he has been able to count on throughout all his adventures: Amy. This sort of thing has happened before, as readers of The 39 Clues will remember, and it’s a reliable plot trope in adventure novels in general. Still, fans of this ongoing series will enjoy trying to figure out just who is on whose side and who is pursuing what agenda here, although all readers will understand that Dan and Amy cannot possibly end up on opposite sides of things. “Most people think he’s nuts,” one character here comments about another. And Dan replies, “Sounds like our kind of guy.” Indeed, anyone with goodness in his or her heart and a predisposition for the victory of the benevolent managers of history (the Cahills) vs. the evil ones (J. Rutherford Pierce and many others) will be “our kind of guy” (or gal) in Unstoppable, as in the previous incarnations of The 39 Clues. At this point, these thoroughly unsubtle, easy-to-follow multimedia adventure stories show every sign of continuing to expand to such a degree that they can fairly be considered, well, unstoppable.

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