Monday, February 8, 2021

City Spies

City Spies
by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 12+

The group of spy kids introduced in this book takes the name "City Spies" not because they're affiliated with any particular city, but because their codenames are all based on the cities they came from – Paris, Sydney, Rio and Kat, as in Kathmandu – and because they don't care for the official name of the MI6 project that is training them to do intelligence work. They live together at a facility called FARM – the Foundation for Atmospheric Research and Monitoring – a place on the shore of the North Sea, in Scotland that allows them to do real weather-related science while also, secretly, messing around with secret codes. Their chaperones are a woman called Monty and a man called Mother, who was burned in a very personal (and literal) way and who is now a secret agent even among other secret agents. And their mission is to make the final round – but not win – a youth science contest devoted to finding solutions for climate change, so they can protect a tech tycoon from becoming the next victim of an underworld organization called the Purple Thumb.

A problem arises: Their computer expert, who is needed on the team not just for her hacking expertise but to make up the required five members, has defected. Not to a foreign power, of course – I mean, we're talking about, like, a 14-year-old girl here – but to the local school, that has its own team going to the contest. She's in it to win it, but if she does win, her secret identity will fall under public scrutiny and that threatens the whole team. But a more immediate problem is: the team needs a new hacker. So, we meet this team as Brooklyn does (real name: Sara Martinez), when Mother swoops in on her plea hearing for a cyber-crime she committed to expose her foster parents for abusing the child welfare system. Using spycraft, misdirection and a couple of brilliant Roald Dahl references, he not only wins Sara's release into his custody but also his way into our hearts.

Brooklyn (that's what we're calling Sara, now) gets off to a rocky start with the other FARM kids, when as a welcoming gesture they try to play a trick on her and she turns the tables on them. But there isn't time to dwell on that, because very soon, they have to go to Paris and do very well, but not too well, in a contest where Charlotte (the defector) will be doing her best to thwart them. While Mother pursues his own, separate mission, he comes to suspect a sinister connection between the CEO of Sinclair Scientifica and Le Fant̫me Рthe art-collecting villain who burned him. At the same time, the kids uncover a spooky link between Sinclair and the other companies targeted by previous Purple Thumb attacks.

While each member of the City Spies contributes a unique expertise to the case, Brooklyn is especially put to the test. Her hacking ability, among other things, puts her right at the center of a nerve-jangling break-in at Sinclair Scientifica's tech headquarters. But it is finally up to her to outclimb, outrun, and outwit a deadly assassin whose mission threatens dozens – possibly millions – of lives.

It's a good, solid spy adventure will thrills, chills, and young characters who grow individually and as a team. The grown-ups are fun, too – particularly Mother, who manages to be a terrific comic relief character and a roguishly clever secret agent at the same time, while also touching hearts with his sincerity and vulnerability. Fans of children's literature will dig references to Peter Pan, Harry Potter and many other cultural phenomena; though you may have to be British to appreciate the "football" references. (At least you can sympathize with Brooklyn, who's as clueless about them as you may be.) Finally, as a mystery, it builds just as it should, with the information needed to solve it coming together in the right order and at the right time. All in all, it's quite well done.

This is the first book in a series that continues with Golden Gate, which is due for release on March 9, 2021. Italian-born James Ponti, a sometime television writer, is also the author of the Dead City trilogy, the T.O.A.S.T. Mystery trilogy, junior novelizations and storybooks based on several movies, the Framed! Crime-Fighting Collection and contributions to several multi-author franchises.

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