Brainjack by Brian Falkner

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Brainjack by Brian Falkner

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Pacy action thriller about a teen computer hacker and a rather scary, self-aware AI. Ticking lots of boxes, this one will find a wide audience.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 450 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Walker
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 1406329061

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Sam comes to the attention of the CDD (Homeland Security's Cyber Defence Division) when he crashes the entire American internet network because he wants a top spec laptop and one of those super-cool new neural headsets, but doesn't have the money to buy them. Thinking he's been given a hacker network initiation test, Sam then successfully penetrates the White House's security system. It's all the CDD needs to know, and Sam finds himself sprung from federal custody and recruited.

This is a near-future America - post 9/11, but also post-Vegas, a nuclear accident that has wiped out Las Vegas and left swathes of the country in quarantine. Sam and his CDD colleagues who are all also teenaged hackers (you burn out at 20 or so, apparently) are charged with protecting the US from cyber terrorists. And their skills are soon called for, as a rogue AI finds consciousness, threatening the end of human individuality...

I particularly liked the cosmopolitan flavour Falkner has given to Brainjack. It's set in the US, but it's not relentlessly American, if you know what I mean - nobody's going to be perplexed over brand references or educational terms - and two of the major characters are British and Kiwi. This not only gives Brainjack a genuinely international feel, it also makes the book more accessible - across-the-pond cultural references can sometimes be stumbling blocks even in some of the headline YA novels I read.

I liked Sam too - he's a natural hacker, so natural that even uber-hacker Dodge calls him a freak, but he's not irritatingly superior like Alex Rider (I really don't like Alex Rider). He comes across well as a very ordinary boy with a particular talent who is thrown into a huge situation completely outwith anything he's ever imagined. One minute, he's using his skillz to purloin a sexy new laptop and the next he's doing battle with a rogue AI threatening to enslave humanity. How would you feel? Lost? Scared? Confused? Well, so does Sam. He's a great reluctant hero and he steps up to the plate with courage. I think readers will like him. I certainly did. Perhaps the supporting cast is a bit one-dimensional at times, but with books like this, it's all about the plot and the central character. And Brainjack, like Sam, steps up to the plate on both.

I found the Matrix-style idea of the neural headsets - the root cause of the crisis in the book - interesting. As we spend more and more time in the cloud, socialising virtually, meeting new friends virtually, discussing issues virtually, will it really go so far? Will we plug ourselves into the net? And what would happen if we did? Brainjack may well fall into the geek chic thriller genre, but it asks some interesting questions, too.

There's realistic tech, a high crime caper starring teen hackers and a rogue AI to be faced. Brainjack is not tub-thumping or worthy, but more sophisticated readers might well ask themselves some questions after they've read it. The rest will simply enjoy the chase.

Recommended for all action fans.

My thanks to the good people at Walker for sending the book.

Colony by J A Henderson deals with biological warfare rather than cyber crime, but I think they would like it. They might also enjoy Tripwire by Steve Cole and Chris Hunter, a seriously high-tech thriller.

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