Man, things sure have changed in young adult fiction since I was a young adult. I remember curling up to the swashbuckling adventures of John Carter of Mars, or the exploits of the Pevensie children in fabled Narnia, or the trials and tribulations of a quartet of hobbits trying to shift a bit of excess bling. These days, YA stories are as brutal, bloody, dark, cynical, and hard-R-rated as any Martin Scorsese crime movie from the 70's. Doubtless it's a reflection of a more informed, darker age, when the ubiquity of information about the pervasive evils in the world makes hanging on to childlike innocence that much harder.
iBoy, the ninth novel by popular Yorkshireman Kevin Brooks, is a deconstructionist superhero tale that's about as grim as they come. Generally speaking, I dislike superhero stories, as I really don't relate to the power-fantasy aspect, and I find their might-makes-right ethos morally dubious at the best of times. Brooks is all too aware of the genre's shortcomings as well, it would seem, as the themes of iBoy do their best to shatter its underlying moral assumptions. Where the book works best is in conveying, without flinching in the slightest, that vigilantism is as cold-blooded and selfish a crime as that which it seeks to redress. Taking it upon oneself to combat evil can, quite often, turn someone into the very thing they're fighting if they aren't careful. The angst of 16-year-old protagonist Tom Harvey rings true while wrestling with this conundrum, far more than the usual teen emo self-absorption.
However, Brooks does require readers to suspend their disbelief to almost superhuman levels with his premise, which has Tom unwittingly gaining his powers after being brained by an iPhone thrown from the 30th floor of a South London housing project. Chunks of the gizmo embed themselves in his gray matter, ultimately fusing with it, turning Tom into iBoy, with the ability to link his mind digitally to the Internet as well as computer and cell phone networks the world over. Everything he sees is recorded as video, and his skin takes on an eerie electronic glow when his powers are active. It would definitely add a whole new dimension to playing Angry Birds, for sure.
It would be easy enough to roll your eyes and just go with this if Brooks didn't have Tom's new iPowers capable of doing things that, to the best of my knowledge, no actual iPhone can do. The iPhone is an impressive gadget, to be sure. But I hardly think that one is able, all on its own, to hack into any computer, any cell phone account, any bank account, any electronic network, anywhere on Earth, instantly, as if firewalls or encryption or any security of any kind simply doesn't exist. Yet Tom can do all these things just by thinking about it, with no apparent effort. When he learns that his grandmother, with whom he lives alone, is desperately in debt, facing eviction, plus prosecution for unpaid back taxes, he settles her affairs (all the while knowing how wrong it is) by transferring £1 from the accounts of the world's 15,000 richest people. He apparently achieves all of this within minutes, while I suspect the world's awesomest hacker might require a bit more time, if only to find those accounts in the first place, let alone work his way into them. Later on, Tom is even able to pick a physical padlock, through something very like telekinesis. Seriously, if Steve Jobs had any idea how omnipotent his little creation was, he might have used it to extract the tumor from his pancreas via a file attachment.
But if Brooks does test his readers' tolerance for the ridiculous with his SFnal elements, he comes up aces on the story's emotional core. The plot involves Tom's quest for vengeance after his friend Ben falls afoul of one of the project's drug gangs, who viciously rape Ben's sister Lucy, on whom Tom has been madly crushing since childhood. Brooks' handles the devastation of rape trauma as sensitively as he can, and there's much tender emotional truth in Tom and Lucy's scenes together after the ordeal. In a culture where something like one in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime (with most of them dealing with the humiliation of being blamed for it), this really isn't a topic that young adult fiction should avoid.
Tom's revenge doesn't involve (for the most part) direct reprisal, but sneakier acts of personal sabotage via his new iPowers, some of which have violent consequences that lead him further into self-doubt. But as the exploits of iBoy become more widely known around the projects, including his quest for the elusive leader of the gang itself, it isn't long before trouble comes looking for him.
Brooks adds levels of sweat-inducing dramatic tension equal to that of any adult thriller. But his commitment to exposing life's ugliest evils in as honest a manner as he can makes his book an inescapably grisly experience, one which (its outlandish superhero premise notwithstanding) many of his readers may well appreciate, if not exactly enjoy.