Alpha Force: Survival

Alpha Force

Author: Chris Ryan

Publication: Red Fox, 2002

Pages: 206

Overall Rating:  bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]                      

Rating for Action: bth_25_zps13f4f4eb[1]

Quantity of Action: bth_3-star-rating_zps73bdba73[1]

Age Category: 13+

Brief Summary:  This is the first book in the Alpha Force series, about a group of five teens who travel around the world righting wrongs and helping people in need.  Alex, Li, Paulo, Amber, and Hex are brought together as crew members of the Pheonix, a sailing ship in the Indian Ocean.  They signed up for an eco-voyage – surveying plant and animal life, diving in coral reefs and the like.  But from the start they can’t seem to get along with one another.  They’re constantly fighting and arguing.  As punishment, their crew leader sends them off on their own, without dinner, to think about what they’ve done.  They devise a cruel plan to get back at her.  They snag some food and hide in the ship’s tender, a small boat that floats behind the main ship, in order to make her think they’ve gone missing.  Only the plan goes wrong, and they find themselves set adrift in the ocean.  They wash up on a small, uninhabited island, and have to come together in order to battle the heat, lack of water and food, illness, komodo dragons, sharks, and even a band of modern day pirates.  It will take all their skills just to survive.

Age of Main Character: 15

What I Liked the Most: Chris Ryan is a former soldier in the SAS – Britain’s version of Special Forces.  He has first-hand knowledge of jungle survival skills, and brings them into play in his story.  Everything from the shelters Alex and his companions build to how they go about treating wounds, chopping open a coconut, and even using lengths of bamboo to steam their food feels extremely realistic.  Ryan even goes so far as to provide a detailed list of ten tips for survival in tropical conditions at the end of the book.  All this makes both the dangers of the island and the kids’ strategies for survival feel very life-like.

The island itself is also an important character in the book, and Ryan does a good job with it.  They could have landed some place that came across as an island paradise, and that would have really changed the tempo of the book.  Instead, their island is all mangrove swamps, jungle, and mountains.  It’s full of insects and dangerous animals.  It’s a place to survive – and it feels exactly like the kind of island you might actually wash up on after a shipwreck.

I also like the way Ryan has Alex and the others take actions that push them towards their encounter with the pirates.  They are not simple victims of chance.  I won’t provide any spoilers here, but Alex and the others take a series of necessary actions that push them towards the point where they come in contact with the pirates.  Even then, they could just crawl away and hide, but they don’t.  They again take intentional action, balancing the chance for rescue – and to help others – with the dangers of a fight.  They’re active players in the story, and I really liked that.

What I Liked the Least: Between them, Alex, Li, Paulo, and Amber just happen to have all the skills they need to survive on a desert island, while Hex – as a computer expert – brings along a set of skills they’ll undoubtedly need for the next mission.  This is not like a school for spies, where the school intentionally recruits people with certain skills and trains them.  These are five kids who just happen to have been placed together in the same work group for a summer eco-adventure trip.  And between them they just happen to have an expert in outdoor survival skills, a mechanic with side expertise in field medicine, a navigator and accomplished swimmer, and a wildlife biologist with expertise in rock climbing and hand-to-hand combat.  It all felt staged – a grouping of skills that couldn’t possibly have come together by chance.

I also had trouble with the ending.  I don’t want provide too many spoilers here, but this is the first book in the Alpha Force series.  In future books, they will fight terrorists and poachers, take down drug labs, go after groups that kidnap people and kill them for their organs, etc.  In each case, there’s a cover story, a reason for them to be where they are.   But the truth is that four of the five kids in this team have parents.  Only one of them is an orphan.  That may sound like a grim perspective on things, but in most books about teen spies the characters are orphans, and with good reason.  Kids with parents could never go out on the kinds of missions that most teen spies undertake.  So given that most of these kids have parents – who will want to know what they’re up to – it seems highly unlikely that they’d ever be able form a group like Alpha Force at the end of the book.

How Good was the Action?  Decent.  This book is a combination of survival story and action thriller.  As a survival story it’s pretty good in that the survival techniques used by Alex and the others felt quite realistic.  But, it lacks the true sense of desperation that you find in top notch survival stories like Gary Paulson’s Hatchet, Gordon Korman’s, Everest, and Ben Mikaelsen’s Red Midnight.

As an action thriller it’s also just decent.  There are some good fights with komodo dragons and the stand-off with the pirates is well done.  But there’s not a lot of action and it never rises to the level of books like Alex Rider, Young Bond, Ranger’s Apprentice, or Tripwire.  Perhaps the biggest problem is not that the action scenes weren’t well done on a technical level, but that I simply didn’t care about any of the characters enough to be too bothered about what happened to them.

How Engaging was the Story? I have to be honest.  Throughout most of this book, I didn’t have a lot of trouble putting it down.  It was only towards the end that the story became gripping enough to hold my interest.  This may be because the survival techniques, while fun to read about, weren’t all that exciting, and unlike other survival books I never really got the sense that the characters were all that desperate.  It was only towards the end, as Alex and his friends crossed the island in a bid to save one of their own and found themselves face-to-face with pirates – really, as the book morphed from survival story into adventure thriller – that it became hard to put down.

Overall Assessment: This is a decent survival/adventure novel and probably a must if you want to descend further into the world of Alpha Force.  It’s also great for the realistic tips that Chris Ryan offers, which are part of every Alpha Force book.  I really liked the sense of knowing that I was in the hands of a survival expert.  But I never found myself truly drawn in by the characters or their plight, and as such, the book lacked tension and was easy to put down.

Profanity: None

Sex: There are some mild sexual references and a bit of very light flirting, but nothing more.

Violence: Yes.  People get eaten by sharks and komodo dragons and there are some chase scenes, but the violence is not especially graphic or in your face.  There’s very little blood.

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