Updated: Jan 20, 2019
Thanks to Scholastic for providing me with an advance reader’s copy for the purposes of review.
Following three wildly entertaining books from author Alan Gratz, including HBB Reviews’ best book of 2017 Refugee, I found myself excited for the possibilities of his latest title Grenade, set to hit store shelves this year on October 9th. And as I flourished through the 258 page-length of the title, it was simply everything that I expected from a work from Alan Gratz. Grenade is entertaining, enjoyable, and overall a comfortable read for a younger set of readers. However, after four titles, Gratz’s esteemed formula of composing historical fiction shows some noticeable wear. Often times throughout Grenade, it feels as if the book simply can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be. Escalating from a light prose on the meager themes of war to a fully-fledged documentary-like narrative that blends immersion and shock value to deliver on the promise of realism. It seems as if Gratz simply can’t create a story that is more deep and thematic than just an enjoyable read. By never exploring some of the fully-fledged horrors of war, the experience and original concepts that Grenade proposes come off as weak and rather disappointing. Nevertheless, it is simply undeniable that Alan Gratz’s latest title, Grenade is an enjoyable read thanks to a roster of likable characters and a quickened pace, but shows wear due to an abundant formula present in every of Gratz’s book before it.
When it comes to most of Gratz’s books, they usually have a somewhat similar approach to both the story itself and the plot. Each of his recent books have been set in a historical background, mainly in the World War II setting, outside of the excellent Refugee. They also depict younger characters who are trying to endure in such a harsh environment and time. This is undoubtedly a successful formula for historical fiction books targeted at a younger audience. However, it is still just a formula and formulas in storytelling should be used as little as possible. Outside of two horrifically shocking events, Gratz’s latest book never really deviates strongly from his other works in the design of the plot. Every event present is fairly predictable, a real shame considering how enthralling his previous books, especially Prisoner B-3087, was due to its labyrinth and surprising design. Grenade simply doesn’t capture this element in the slightest. In fact, during the second act, I surprised myself by how loose I actually was with the book. I never was able to develop a relationship with the story that would cause to late nights in bed, flashing through pages until the final word was read. That event never happened at all in the estimated 3 days it took for me to fully read the title.
However, while the actual story may not have much originality in its plot, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have original concepts to display. In fact, some of the elements present in this title are actually revolutionary for the worn genre of historical fiction. The backgrounds of characters and their relationships, including the two primary protagonists Hideki and Ray, are masterfully weaved. These two characters and their subtle, poetic relationship is fascinating throughout, even after a rather shocking event during the end of the first act. It has a layer of poetry and rhythm that is unseen in any of Gratz’s previous work. These two characters and their symbiotic relationships prove to easily be the best aspect of the entire book. However, while these two protagonists may flourish in their revolutionary design and execution, the other characters leave much to be desired. None of the side characters are particularly memorable, even though some of them serve as our lead protagonist’s motivation for the entirety of the plot. Their presence in the actual story is relatively small, so this issue is cheapened slightly, but it doesn’t remove the impression that these characters rather compromise what our lead protagonists are fighting for. But this issue never entirely compromises the experience the book creates, but it is certainly an issue that weakens the masterful characters seen in both Hideki and Ray.
As for the themes of the story, this element of storytelling has proved to be some of the most important aspects of the war genre. Recent works like Dunkirk and Hacksaw Ridge attempt to play up the thematic elements of the story, allowing the audience to see the film as a higher work rather than just another mindless action film. When it comes to Grenade however, it somewhat is successful on this front. As mentioned before, the relationship of Ray and Hideki is masterfully done and features some truly thematic elements that stayed with me after finishing the book. But outside of this one element, there isn’t anything else that is notable. This fact is made even more disappointing by the realization that there are plenty of ways that Gratz could have made the book more innovative. Throughout the story, the depiction of war and the rather dark events are never fully-fledged. This is most likely due to the younger audience that the book is trying to target, but as a result, it compromises how effective and impactful the experience actually is. With films like Dunkirk, I was left shocked and stunned for weeks on end, just due to how impactful its themes and storytelling was. With Grenade, I found myself enjoying the book but almost completely forgetting the quality of the book the next day.
As a whole, there is no denying how enjoyable Grenade is as a historical fiction read. It features some masterful weaving of characters and storytelling, but ultimately isn’t really able to escape the obstructions holding it back. For future works, I wish Gratz would be given the full reign to compose a story that is free to be as dark and thematic as it wants to be. I feel that project could easily be one of the best of his career, especially due to the rather disappointing nature of Grenade. But still, even after the critical flaws that may litter Grenade, I am still willing to recommend the book to any fan of historical fiction. The story is exciting and well-paced and the imagery is tangible from the beginning to the very end, creating a story that may not be wholly original but it still a tense ride from the very first page.
Score: 7.6 out of 10
GRENADE hits store shelves on October 9th, 2018 and is available for pre-order right now with the links below.