Rat Runners had a number of things that grabbed my interest. The whole concept sounded pretty fun. Some of the preview blurbs called it an "Oliver Twist for the 21st Century" and "Blade Runner meets 1984."
Set sometime in the future, the story takes place in a dystopic London where high tech security organization WatchWorld keeps crime and violence under control through the use of countless street cameras, drones and satellites as well as "Safe Guards" patrolling the streets and buildings of the city. The cameras and drones are equipped with state of the art hardware and software to allow them to quickly analyze video and audio to quickly pinpoint crimes as they happen.
The technology goes a step beyond that with X-Ray scanning, audio analysis of voice and even heartbeats and chemical/sensory analysis of increased body temperature or sweat. The "Safe Guard" is a human wrapped up in armored technology in a way that reminded me of RoboCop but without being wholly roboticized. The human inside is given orders and information on their visor and is shielded from the outside world in a way that eliminates the appearance of humanity to an external viewer.
WatchWorld has full control and autonomy to stamp out crime in whatever way they see fit. Naturally this pushes the criminal element "underground" into "voids" they've created to keep out the peeping eyes of WatchWorld. Even though the general public allows WatchWorld to carry out this intense level of surveillance, the public wants to maintain at least some privacy for their children. As a result, the criminal underworld uses children and young teens to help with their legwork above ground. The book title comes from the skinny alleyways, nooks and crannies that the kids run through to avoid being caught on camera or stumble across a Safe Guard patrol. Because even though WatchWorld can't explicitly spy on a child, if they have enough suspicion that the child is involved in illegal activities, that rule changes.
The story starts out introducing us to a couple of the main characters, Nimmo, Manikin and FX. We join Manikin and FX as they work through a bump-and-snatch job in a London park and are sadly betrayed by a pair of older crooks they've been paired up with for the job. We meet Nimmo as he prepares to go out on a job only to be interrupted by his neighbor and landlord who quickly asks Nimmo to do him a favor by hiding a box for him. Minutes later, the landlord ends up murdered and Nimmo becomes a potential suspect.
The three are brought together when they receive a summons from "Move Easy", one of the big crime bosses in the city. They are given the task of retrieving a box that Move Easy wants...a box that just so happens to be the box Nimmo hid for his murdered landlord. The three are teamed up with Move-Easy's "brain" girl Scope, a teenager wily in the ways of forensics and science. Not sure who to trust and wanting answers before making any move, Nimmo keeps his knowledge of the box secret and urges the team to solve the murder while looking for the box.
Each step forward uncovers more and more players ranging from other crime lords to someone within WatchWorld itself. Nimmo and the other kids have a wealth of skills and experience but it's quickly apparent they are out of their league unless they work together and learn to trust one another.
I really enjoyed the story and had a lot of fun with this new London created by the book. There was a fair amount of new language and slang, some of which felt natural and other bits felt awkward and I never really got used to. Many of the characters have their dialog written in such a way as to accentuate their accents or to create a rhythm for the slang and dialect. This was a lot of fun but was distracting at times. With teen/tween protagonists, the book is definitely geared towards younger readers. It had a little bit of swearing that turned me off a little bit especially for younger readers. I agree that it helps set a certain tone, but I also felt like it wasn't truly necessary.
The futuristic technology as well as the ways the kids and criminals get around the tech was really interesting. The advancements and gadgets felt fairly logical and realistic in terms of a natural progression. While I hope we never get to a society with such invasive security measures, I can certainly see the possibilities.
The adventure sequences and the character interactions felt fluid and natural. Some of the sequences hinted at brutal violence but fortunately kept the key details "off-page" so as to provide the idea of violence without actually writing gratuitously over the top scenes.
I also really liked the way the main protagonists worked together to sort through their trust issues and determine how to work together or how to try and undermine each other. Each of the characters felt very solid and real with their own talents, motivations and ideals. Their dialog and actions felt real and convincing.
My biggest problem with the book came towards the end as the kids finally figured out what Nimmo's landlord had been working on and determined why everyone in London was hunting for it. The discovery itself was intriguing and felt like a logical fit...until the kids decided to try and use it themselves. The actual implementation of the discovery was a "jump the shark" moment for me in the book. I'm not going to add any spoilers to this review except to say that the possibilities for this newly invented/realized technology started out sounding realistic but quickly became too far fetched for me to adequately believe. The sort of things it ended up doing was a quantum leap in science and technology even for this futuristic London. While it provided for some really cool elements during the climactic ending to the book, I just had to shake my head as the author outlined some of the things the kids did with it.
Taking aside the infrequent swearing and the "jump the shark" technology near the end, I really enjoyed this book. I know at least two teenage boys who I think will really enjoy this. Unlike a lot of the books out there these days, this one doesn't hint at a sequel or series and doesn't explicitly set up any future stories. But it also leaves the world open with plenty of material for future books so I wouldn't be surprised and I wouldn't complain if we see Nimmo and friends again.
Overall this is a fun, well paced, action packed story set in a vibrant world with colorful characters. Fans of the dystopic YA theme that's overrunning the world should have a lot of fun with this book.
4 out of 5 stars
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