Gwendolyn Bloom is a teenage schoolgirl who, ever since her mother was murdered, has spent her life travelling the world in the wake of her diplomat father. But when her father’s kidnapped, Gwendolyn is about to discover that he isn’t the paper-shuffling civil servant she’s always believed – he’s a government agent, and nobody is very sure whether he’s been abducted by the bad guys or simply jumped ship to join the opposite side. As the weeks pass and an already cold trail grows colder, Gwendolyn realises that the only way to find her father is by going on the run and tracking him down herself. It’s a journey that will take her across Europe and into the dark and seedy undersides of Paris, Berlin and Prague, changing her identity, living rough, and risking death at seemingly every turn. Whatever’s happened to Gwendolyn’s father, some very nasty people are involved, underground gangs that will kill Gwendolyn if they lay their hands on her. You grow up very fast when you encounter cruelty on this level and, if Gwendolyn is ever going to survive, she’ll have to be far crueller than the monsters who are hunting her.
The Cruelty’s getting a lot of publicity at the moment. In some quarters it’s been described as the YA lovechild of Jason Bourne and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer has already snapped up the film rights. Meanwhile, The Cruelty’s author Scott Bergstrom has also been notching up a few ‘even bad publicity’s good publicity’ points by being less than polite about some popular varieties of YA fiction (he even takes a shot at that subject in the opening pages of his novel) which not unsurprisingly got a few YA readers pants in a twist. It’s an interesting strategy to risk alienating the same audience who are the target demographic for your fiction, but could all this pomp and hoo-hah simply be disguising the fact that The Cruelty isn’t the publishing sensation its publicists are making it out to be?
Well - yes. Although Gwendolyn is an interesting character and The Cruelty is a very well-written book with some neatly executed action sequences and a nice line in taking us to places few of us would ever want to go (unless we were suicidal, or very heavily armed), it’s all a bit deus ex machina. Let’s face it, how many teenage outsiders with parenting issues are also accomplished gymnasts and world travellers who speak several languages and have a loveable downstairs neighbour who turns out to be an ex-Israeli special agent able to call in a few favours, get you a spanking fake passport and a crash course in Krav Maga? In many ways The Cruelty feels like the female-centric version of Allen Zadoff’s Boy Nobody, a far more stylish effort that arrived with a similar fanfare a handful of years ago and ultimately disappeared without trace, and despite claims that it’s going to be the first in a ground-breaking new series, The Cruelty feels less like a book designed for reading and more like a book designed purely to become the next big movie franchise. As a movie it might just work, but as a book it’s a soulless and disappointing exercise.
THE CRUELTY / AUTHOR: SCOTT BERGSTROM / PUBLISHER: WALKER BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW