After dragging myself through a Book Club selection that aimed for the moon but sputtered at take-off, I wanted a read that would take me for a wild ride. Thankfully, the latest chapter in the Adventures in Trains series had only recently arrived at my door. Those masters of ferroequinology, Mara Leonard, Sam Sedgman and Elisa Paganelli couldn’t have had better timing! And this time, the accent really is on adventure!!!
If you’ve been keeping up, we were introduced to kid detective Harrison “Hal” Beck when his uncle, travel journalist Nathaniel Bradshaw, invited him to board a classic U.K. steam train carrying members of the royal family. Hal managed to capture a notorious jewel thief and get bitten by the railway bug. From there, it was on to an Amtrak in America (foiling a kidnapping), a safari in South Africa (locked room murder!), and bedlam in the Balkans (secret wills, family curses, and enough trains to, well, create a series of books about them!)
Sabotage on the Solar Express takes us to a new continent to reconnect with some old friends. Tech billionaire August Reza (Kidnap on the California Comet) has once again invited Nat and Hal to Australia in order to witness an extraordinary first: the unveiling of the winner of Reza’s contest to design a “green” train of the future. Hal is almostthrilled to be there – so long as he doesn’t have to hang out with Reza’s daughter Marianne, with whom he tangled uncomfortably on his train ride through the States.
One thing a great book for kids does is empower them, and the child empowerment going on here is stronger than ever. Hal and Marianne are definitely the heroes of this saga, and they are joined by Boaz Tudawali, the 14-year-old inventor of the Solar Express. Boaz is big and brawny from working on his parents’ farm; he is also brilliant, turning a shack on the farm into a lab where he has created a hydrogen-powered locomotive. While there is a dash of science fiction going on here, the authors assure us that the possibility of a train like this being invented is just around the corner. Young readers who are scientifically inclined, or who long to learn about concepts of clean energy, will especially delight in the set-up for this adventure.
And an adventure it most definitely is! Oh, sure, there’s a mystery going on here, namely which of the sixteen people on board the inaugural ride of the Solar Express is a saboteur, and a particularly vicious one at that? But the “whodunnit” aspects here, while perfectly fine, are secondary to the non-stop excitement that occurs the moment Hal and Uncle Nat land in Alice Springs. “You’ll be so busy having your mind blown by the beauty of Australia that there’ll be no time for detecting,” Uncle Nat tells Hal.
The reunion with the Rezas and the introduction to Boaz and his family all go splendidly, but even so there are disturbing hints of trouble to come. Then the suspense builds quickly after the train sets off for its five-hour test run to Tennant Creek. (You can almost hear the theme song: “A fiiiiive hour toooooour!”)
As the danger escalates, with one narrow escape after another, young Boaz emerges as the perfect action hero, both scientist and strongman; Marianne redeems herself after her “spoiled brat” act on the California Comet; and Hal is once again the brilliant sleuth, using his sharp eye and artistic concentration to conjure up details that nobody else noticed. Elisa Paganelli here changes up her style of illustrations to match the action genre with a series of comic book panels, complete with dialogue balloons. WARNING: examine these illustrations very carefully because there are clues to be found!
In the final face off with the villain, Hal sums up kid power in a nutshell. “You underestimate children,“ he tells his quarry, “ . . . and this child is going to send you to prison. It’s a stirring speech (too spoiler-laden to quote more of here) that will have all of Hal’s younger armchair detectives cheering. I confess that this science-bereft, gray-haired man-child felt pretty cheery, too, but then I was also loudly rooting for Uncle Nat, who gets in some tense heroic moments of his own! (Hey, I’m an uncle, too!)
You can tell that Mara Leonard and Sam Sedgman are having the time of their lives here, sticking us into the middle of this kid-centered action movie (it wasn’t until a quarter of the way through that I noticed the fun they were having with chapter titles) and allowing this latest chapter in Hal’s career to take on its own shape and flavor. Sabotage on the Solar Express is another fantastic episode in my favorite series of mysteries for the young in age and the young at heart. How exciting to turn to the final page and discover that The Arctic Railway Assassin will be available in October! You can bet I’ll be ordering my copy as soon as it’s available.