While I immensely enjoyed the Jason Bourne movies (starring Matt Damon and, later, Jeremy Renner), I never felt compelled to read the Robert Ludlum novels the films are based on because I couldn’t imagine such a visual story told using only words. However, after reading Jennifer Rush’s Young Adult action thriller Altered, I see that it is possible to effectively convey tense action on the page. Throw in a coming of age story and a tentatively depicted romance and you end up with a fantastically entertaining read.
Seventeen-year-old Anna Morgan’s life is fairly normal, at least from her perspective. She’s home schooled and she only leaves the farmhouse she shares with her workaholic father to visit the local library, but she loves to draw and make notes in her deceased mother’s journal, an object she treasurers. However, Anna would agree that there is nothing normal about the lab that exists in the basement below her house. And certainly the four boys who are kept behind glass walls in that basement are not normal at all.
Subjects of a special project run by the mysterious agency known as the Branch, Sam, Trevor, Cas, and Nick have been genetically modified for superior physical and mental skills. They cannot remember their lives before being locked in the lab five years ago, nor do they know why they are there. Anna believes they might be some kind of super soldier designed to protect the world from some unspecified danger. She helps her father with collecting data on the boys and administering medications. She also tries to make the boys’ lives more comfortable, baking them cookies and bringing them books and things to do. She’s developed a friendship with all of them except the surly Nick, who is determined to keep her at arms length.
Anna has become especially close to Sam, the one boy who most intrigues her. She often sneaks down to the lab at night to play chess with him, and while they’ve only ever interacted with a wall of glass between them, she can’t imagine her life without Sam in it.
When the Branch arrives one day to take the boys away from the lab, Sam stages a dramatic breakout. Anna’s father pleads with Sam to take Anna with him and protect her at all costs. Despite his uncertainty if he can trust her, Sam agrees, and the five set off. Barely eluding Branch agents who pursue them relentlessly, the group moves from town to town, following clues that will help the boys reconstruct enough memories to understand who and what they are. However, with every answer they find, Anna’s own identity begins to come into question.
I cannot say too much more because much of the enjoyment in this story is traveling with this motley group as they unravel the mystery that is their very existence all while dodging men with guns who will go to any length to capture them. Action and suspense are the main flavor of Altered, with relationships happening in between the shootouts and mystery solving. I feel confident that a movie adaptation of this book would appeal to both males and females, no problem. Sam and his fellow escapees are, indeed, superior fighters, and despite this book’s designation as a YA title, there are no punches pulled when it comes to defending themselves.
Anna proves to be a sturdy heroine who moves from an observer to an active participant in the adventure. While she’s strong and keeps up with the boys as best she can, her feelings for Sam and the pain she experiences as she learns more about her own life keeps her realistically vulnerable. Too, she may begin the story as a damsel in need of protecting, but by story’s end, she’s proven invaluable to the survival of the group.
Each of the boys has a distinct personality although beyond Sam, none are explored too deeply. Cas plays the role of the happy-go-lucky kid, always hungry and easily distracted. Trevor – Trev – is the smart one with a whip-quick memory. Nick is dark and brooding, and despite his amnesia, he knows his life before the Branch must have held misery. The leader of the group, Sam carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The romance between Anna and Sam blossoms slowly. The feelings remain lopsided in Anna’s direction for much of the story, a combination of the first-person narration from Anna’s point of view and their situation, which leaves little opportunity for Sam to express any tender feelings he may have for her. A huge story twist further throws their fledgling relationship into jeopardy, but when both are willing to make huge sacrifices for the other, there is little doubt that their attraction is genuine.
One of the more interesting relationships, I found, is the one that develops between Anna and Nick. At first Anna fears Nick, and Nick openly despises her. On the road, his opinion that they should get rid of Anna causes much friction, and Anna reaches a point where she lets her anger with him come to blows. However, they find that they must become allies if they are to survive, and I think more could have come from that had Anna not already set her heart on Sam.
The action does become a bit far fetched, especially towards the end and where Anna is concerned, and the Branch never moves past a generic, evil government-like entity. But several plot twists had me completely surprised, and while the ending offers closure, it is left open enough that sequels are possible.
One major problem I had with the premise’s initial set up bothered me enough to keep this book from attaining a solid A grade. Never once did Anna question the very morality of having four boys locked in a lab in her basement. Even taking into consideration the fact that her father told Anna that his work was necessary and legitimate, why would she ever believe that it was acceptable to deny the boys their freedom so completely? To her credit, Anna does contemplate letting them go once or twice. But the extent of her initial naivete is hard to buy, and you have to be willing to accept a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief right from the get-go.
This book is a very tense page-turner that had me up to the wee hours to finish. It’s the written equivalent of a fantastic summer blockbuster popcorn action flick, and I can happily recommend it to both adults and teen readers.