________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 22. . . .February 11, 2011.


The Black Box. (A Cassandra Virus Novel).

K. V. Johansen.
Sackville, NB: Sybertooth, 2011.
212 pp., pbk., $13.00.
ISBN 978-0-9864974-0-7.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Kim Aippersbach.

***˝ /4



The van loomed over them. It looked very new: a fuel-cell model, of course. Electric was only useful for little commuter cars. Folded down on the roof was a lot of equipment. There wasn't time to figure out what it all was: sensors, receivers, transmitters, or maybe all three. Jordan took pictures of the van from the side and front, moved around to take the rear, and a close-up of the licence plate. Virginia. That was interesting, as Cassandra would say. Some of the American security agency headquarters were in Virginia.

"Pass up the camera." Helen had climbed halfway up a ladder to the haymow. "No, Ajax. Come. Sit. Stay. . . . I'll take a couple of pictures of the gear on the roof from above. Cassandra should be able to figure out what it's all for from that."

"Be quick." . . . Jordan moved off towards the main door, to listen for sounds of anyone leaving the house. This took him right past the small door into the end section Ajax had been so interested in.

"So you work for Cassandra," hissed a voice in his ear, and someone seized his arm. "Don't move. Don't make a sound."

The Black Box is Johansen's third book about Jordan, Helen, and the sentient virtual supercomputer Cassandra. It is set in the near future and combines elements of sci fi with a humorous spy/adventure story. Archaeologist Uncle William uncovers a strange black object that looks like a rock, but it appears to be connected to the periodic blackouts of all wireless communication in the area and to the malfunctioning of the Mars Relay satellite. It has attracted the attention of a group of people who are pretending to be birdwatchers but are clearly American spies, and Jordan, Helen, and their new allies, Demetrios and Arielle, determine to find out what the black object is before some governmental agency, domestic or foreign, can take it away. Jordan writes a program that allows Cassandra to communicate with the Black Box, and she discovers that it is an alien probe. With the help of Demetrios and Arielle's historical re-enactment club, the kids hold off the American spies long enough for the probe to return to its mother ship. Cassandra copies herself into the probe's memory so that she can make first contact with the probe's senders, who are safely 46 light-years away.

     Johansen makes good use of her Nova Scotia setting, the invented town of Sphorville, to flavour the narrative: scenery, weather, quirky local characters and customs give a real sense of place that is often missing from similar tech-based adventures. Her characters are well-drawn and sympathetic, even though they are both geniuses—for example, they call each other Igor as a way of both mocking and embracing their inner mad scientists—and their friendship is an important foundation of the story. The relationships between kids and adults are more realistic than is usual in a typical kids-save-the-day adventure, and Jordan's and Helen's attempts to keep Cassandra secret while telling the adults what they need to know are believable and suspenseful.

     The bad guys, however, are entirely flat and stereotyped, and while this is usual for this type of story, it's disappointing after the depth of the other characters. The scenes involving bungling adult spies are humorous but not as engaging as the interactions between Jordan, Helen, Cassandra, Demetrios and Arielle. Although the middle of the book has several suspenseful scenes of kids and spies sneaking around each other, it felt draggy because the real suspense of the book is discovering what the Black Box is and deciding what to do about it. Readers of the earlier books will appreciate the appearance of Reuben Harvey, an earlier villain now turned ally, although his role in this plot seems spurious. But the book's target audience will enjoy the action and physical humour of kids outwitting government agents. The scene in which the Spohrville Fencibles, in their authentic uniforms and singing songs from the War of 1812, manage to head off the team of Americans with excavators and trucks who are trying to steal the Black Box is quite brilliantly done.

     Readers who are paying close attention may notice a bit of historical information about the Maritimes being slipped into the narrative, and Spohrville is a great representative of a typical Nova Scotia small town. The descriptions of archaeologists at work are informative and interesting, and the arrival of a hurricane is a great way to create suspense and teach about weather. There is a very subtle environmental message; the themes are mostly about friendship and loyalty, and how, if the aliens ever come, it's probably best to leave governments out of it and let the kids handle things!

     Better-written than most best-selling kid-spy books, The Black Box will appeal to fans of adventure stories and to anyone who would love to have a benign sentient supercomputer at their beck and call.

Highly Recommended.

Kim Aippersbach is a freelance editor and writer with three children in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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