March 21, 2013

Assured Destruction

Written by Michael F. Stewart
183 pp.
Ages 13+
March 22, 2013

Tomorrow Michael F. Stewart's first book Assured Destruction hits the market and, with its savvy plotting and tech focus, it's sure to be the start of a successful series.  And there's even a little romance going on.

Assured Destruction may normally refer to a principle of military strategy but here it refers to the Ottawa service that Janus, 16, and her mother run with the mandate of destroying and recycling hard drives and other electronics.  Except for Fenwick, their forklift operator and general works employee, Janus does a lot to keep the business running, as her mother has multiple sclerosis and generally works on the administrative needs of Assured Destruction. But Janus has a little secret cache of hard-drives that she keeps back from destruction by their metal shredder, affectionately known as Chop-Chop, so that she can poke around for secrets.
Secrets are power. (pg.7)
In fact, the story begins with Janus taking the hard drive of a classmate of her's, Jonny Shaftsbury, after being dropped off by his mother. Though it is slated to be destroyed, Janus is intrigued because Jonny has seemed interested in her. So, along with her other Shadownet terminals, for which she has created different personas and Twitter accounts, Janus adds Jonny's which becomes Paradise57. 

When Janus realizes that two individuals from whom she held back HDs have been targeted, one by robbery and the other with allegedly posting pornography, and the police come by about leaked names from other computers dropped off at Assured Destruction, Janus knows something wicked is unfolding but she can't admit her involvement for fear of making the business liable.  But things go from bad to worse when Janus sets up a trojan to learn who has set up a site where she appears to be the administrator.  Instead, all of Janus' networked computers and server go down, and she is suspended from school, grounded at home and questioned by the police.

Soon Janus realizes that her Shadownet of virtual people does not provide the solace it once had.
...I'm not sure I care as much about these people anymore, they don't seem as real as they once had. (pg.120)
In fact, Janus is finding herself attracted to Jonny and another classmate, Karl, who both show an interest in her, but her precarious status has her questioning everyone's trustworthiness, including her mom's new boyfriend, Peter.  While Janus is very tech savvy, she had never anticipated someone hacking her and putting the life that she and her mom have in jeopardy.

While I would consider myself familiar with the use of technology, the programming and hacking exploits of Janus and others would have left me confused if not for Michael F. Stewart's ability to explain without explaining.  Janus' reactions and valiant efforts to stay the consequences of the cyber attacks provide clarity enough to know when something is working or not working. Keeping the hard drives may seem reprehensible but for a girl who is working hours upon hours at the family business (since her dad took off), her Shadownet people are her friends.  She has no time for others.  Maybe she shouldn't have saved them from Assured Destruction but what has been done to her and those whose hard drives she has "borrowed" is far beyond justifiable.  The hacker's actions are not there to incite better behaviour; they are completely selfish.  And Michael F. Stewart has no problem convincing the reader that the world of the Shadownet and hacking is a dark and dangerous one, not a strategy game for all ages.  While there were a few instances where I felt that the writing could have been tighter to ensure clarity and impact, Assured Destruction's fast pace, intricate plotting and atmosphere of unease has me looking forward to Michael F. Stewart's next instalment. 

Just as I was preparing this review, I learned of this trailer for the book and thought readers might be interested.

Uploaded by Michael Stewart on March 20, 2013 to YouTube.

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