Having helped stop a terrorist attack the year before, 15-year-old Will Conlan may now be a target for revenge in Kalkowski’s (Red Cell, 2010) latest thriller.
Will’s only in high school but he’s an essential part of the CIA’s Analytic Red Cell, where he and others brainstorm possible ways that terrorists could strike. The teenager’s intuition and skill led to the thwarting of a bomb plot in Chicago the preceding year. Lately, though, he’s been having a spot of bad luck: his grades mysteriously change from A’s to F’s, and his school lunch account is inexplicably empty. But when Will, girlfriend Stacey Chloupek, and a couple pals are assaulted in an apparent mugging, CIA operative (and Will’s mentor) Mark Tenepior suspects that Will’s the intended target for something sinister. The assailant had a Facebook photo of Will and his friends, but it’s a subsequent invasion of the teenager’s home that confirms Tenepior’s hunch. The CIA stashes the Conlan family at a substation, which doesn’t prevent the baddie(s) from making contact. Someone sends a football ticket to Will after abducting Stacey. If Will hopes to see his girlfriend again, he’ll have to attend an upcoming game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. This terrorist/kidnapper, it seems, not only wants retribution for last year’s failed strike, but may be planning another attack as well. The protagonist is a surprisingly believable hero, despite the story pitting him against terrorists. He aptly displays his indisputable intelligence in “red teaming” scenes, role-playing scenarios to develop defenses for potential attacks. Will’s mental prowess against villains’ brute strength, however, gives the character credibility, as the quick-witted teenager fends off a home invader with a curling iron and shampoo. There’s definitely dramatic tension once Will’s family and friends learn of his covert CIA status. But the novel’s missing some of the balance between normal teen life and Hollywood-esque action, at which Kalkowski’s debut excelled. The author makes up for this with unremitting tension: Will and Stacey struggling to escape restraints, paralleled with an exhilarating ongoing football game, is the story’s centerpiece. An outstanding final act forgoes resolution in favor of a ferocious cliffhanger.
A convincing teenage protagonist and an ending that should leave readers impatiently awaiting a follow-up.