Internal dissension, security leaks and attacks from a much larger rival add up to disaster for the orphanage-cum–spy school introduced in Playing with Fire (2013).
The Merry Sunshine Orphanage, now the school for Systematic Protection, Intelligence & Espionage Services, can’t catch a break. Money is tight, a nosy inspector from the Ministry of Health is threatening to close the facility down, and LOTUS, the school’s huge and well-heeled nemesis, is somehow finding out about and spoiling every mission. The prospect of more foster-home misery is a downer for lead spy kid Max, but that’s not all. He’s not only subject to constant put-downs from bullying schoolmate Nikki, but also tortured by conflicting feelings for his father, a spy who disappeared years ago but is now repeatedly popping into view at inconvenient times to deliver vague pleas or warnings. Hale is usually good at keeping things light, but here, the banter just comes off as bickering, and the jokes fall flat. So does the plot, which strings together lengthy chases with labored Mission Impossible–style exploits, features a “mole” whose identity is obvious from the outset and ends with a cliffhanger that doesn’t feel earned. Where’s Chet Gecko when you need him?
Joyless, juiceless, predictable. (Thriller. 11-13)