Boy X by Dan Smith
Published by Chicken House/Scholastic, February 28, 2017. Jacketed hardcover of 288 pages at $16.99. Also available as an ebook. Intended for ages 8 – 12, grades 3 – 7.
Note: I read an advanced copy so anything may have changed by publication.
The cover: Two soldiers wearing gas masks make their way through a jungle setting. Their images have computer overlays of various numbers, circles, and lines. The entire right half of the cover shows the left side of a boy’s face from the nose up; he stares out intensely, showing off his green eye, which appears to have orange circuitry within it. The tagline “The only way to SURVIVE is to EVOLVE” is under the soldiers and below that is the book’s title, with the x crossing over the boy’s eye. At the bottom left is author Dan Smith’s name. This is an engaging cover from Shane Rebenschied, with the photograph of the boy by Michael Frost, and the design by Mary Claire Cruz. This imagery suggests that soldiers will be looking for a boy who’s been altered by scientists. That’s all I need to see be interested in this book. Overall grade: A+
The premise: From the inside front cover, “His mother is a scientist. His dad was a soldier. Ash is something new altogether. Kidnapped, Ash McCarthy wakes up on a remote tropical island. Why is he there? What is this medical facility around him? Most important, what’s happening inside of him? Ash needs answers. He has twenty-four hours to get them. To escape, Ash must risk his life. But what’s most dangerous: the jungle, his captors, or the mysterious chemical injected into his veins?” This is the perfect tease to this book because it gives the barest hints of what’s to come while revealing absolutely nothing specific to what occurs. The book does address every one of these concerns, so not only does it perfectly tease without revealing, but it’s an honest tease! Whoever wrote this premise should write more for Scholastic. Overall grade: A+
The characters: Ash McCarthy is an engaging protagonist because he has no idea what’s going on. He is the perfect character for the reader to attach him or herself to because they learn what’s going on along with this twelve-year-old. His introduction is very reminiscent of The Walking Dead’s beginning; the lack of other characters around Ash give Dan Smith plenty of opportunities for this boy to reveal his character to the reader — very nicely done. As the book progresses others are introduced, with each providing clues to where Ash is and what he’s become. These hints are subtle, which makes the reader want to speed through the pages to find the truth, much like Ash. Where Ash ends up by the book’s end is very interesting and has me wanting more of this character. The first friendly face Ash encounters is Isabel, who’s the same age he is. She was a terrific character to pair him with since she is able to provide information, but it’s realistic information, not the sort of stuff that comes off as an info dump from the author. Her motivation to help him is good, as are her reactions when Ash reveals certain aspects of himself by the book’s end. Thorn is an excellent antagonist. He’s the first adult encountered and he’s a menace from the start. No matter how far the teens get from him, his ever nearing presence is always felt and always on their minds. His evolution to becoming a character whose words create tension more so than his physical actions was fantastic. There are other adults who appear in this book, but saying who each is and what they bring to the book would spoil several surprises, and there are several solid character surprises that appear all the way until the book’s climax. Overall grade: A
The settings: Isla Negra is a great location. The book opens in a scientific research building and then moves into the jungle. I really enjoyed these different settings, starting with a location that will be somewhat familiar to readers, because it’s a typical building — granted with scientific materials. Leaving this edifice is like journeying to a new world, with it having everything one would expect in a tropical jungle, but it’s slowly revealed — wonderfully so — that something about the plants and animals are not typical. There’s something to be encountered in every foot of this jungle, and under every rock. This was an exceptional environment. Overall grade: A+
The action: Here is where the book cover was a little misleading: the soldiers, plural, don’t become a threat until the last quarter of the book. Before encountered, Thorn is the threat, followed quickly by elements of the jungle. When not running from Thorn, survival is the issue. However, this is not just reality based action similar to those found in Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. Smith populates the jungle creatures with differences that make each encounter thrilling, with those in the trees being amazing. The human threat is great, from Thorn and others, but the countdown threat was genius. I hadn’t expected that in this story, but Smith has one and it kept me turning pages quickly, making each obstacle steal precious time from the hero. The action is really good. Overall grade: A
The conclusion: A very dramatic ending with a great turn. I’m not going to spoil any of it, but it was extremely satisfying. Overall grade: A+
The final line: The story is complete with this book, though there is someone who’s not done with Ash. I would be very welcome to seeing more of Boy X. This is sure to please those craving action, no matter the reader’s age. Recommended. Overall grade: A
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