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Book Review

This mystery/thriller novel by Kathy Reichs and Brendan Reichs is the third in the " Virals" series and is published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, The Penguin Group.

Code is written for kids ages 11 and older. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Moody Ben Blue, chubby Hi Stolowitski, geeky Shelton Devers and supersmart Tory Brennan possess unique abilities resulting from a scientific accident with a super virus. In the first book, the virus inserted canine DNA into their DNA, and now they form something resembling a wolf pack, with acute senses and animal urges for hunting and fighting. When they go "viral," their brains "snap," their eyes glow, and their senses become highly acute. They call it flaring. Tory, 14, is the youngest yet dominant force in the pack, and she has an extra sense, being able to read the minds of others, even Coop, her wolfdog — the fifth member of the pack — but only when the other person is in close proximity to her. Tory meets her father, Kit, for the first time, after her mother is killed in a car accident.

Loggerhead Island, off the coast of South Carolina, houses a veterinary research facility (LIRI) where the parents of the four work. Kit is the director of LIRI, where the four contracted the virus while breaking into a lab to rescue Coop, who also has the virus. The kids like to hang out on Loggerhead because it is secluded, and it gives them a chance to experiment with their new powers, which they've managed to keep secret from just about everyone, even their parents. One afternoon, they uncover a geocache puzzle box.

At their secret bunker on another unfrequented island, the kids work on opening the puzzle box. Once opened, they find a letter written in code and signed by the Gamemaster. Hi's experience with geocaching tells him that the planter of this box does not play by the rules. But the kids are drawn into the mystery and the challenge of breaking the code that leads to more clues.

As they follow the clues, each with an assigned deadline, they realize that they are dealing with a madman. They find they are entangled in a crazy game that may result in a hidden bomb killing innocent people if they refuse to play or if they don't follow the rules of the Gamemaster. One of the rules is that they are not to tell anyone.

They do what the Gamemaster says, but at the same time, they resolve to find him. The clues and research lead them to a castle, a golf course, a shooting range and a monastery's cemetery. Inside the cemetery that their parents forbid them to enter, they follow the clue into a mausoleum and find a sarcophagus. They open the sarcophagus and see a dead man who has not been dead very long. The teens would like to tell the authorities, but the Gamemaster reminds them (via messages on an iPad he has left for them) that the lives of others are at stake if they do. The note hidden with the corpse is even more threatening, and with it are pictures of them and their families, indicating that the Gamemaster is always watching and knows their schedules. The final clue is set for Friday at 9 p.m., coinciding with the time Tory will debut at a cotillion. They deduce that the Gamemaster has planned a disaster to occur during the cotillion.

Tory is the first debutante presented at the ball, held at an old castle. After her presentation, she joins her friends to focus on finding the device the Gamemaster has planted. They notice familiar clues hanging in the castle that lead them to the lowest level and into an interior room that holds the ventilation systems. They locate the device that they thought would be something explosive. Instead it is a box with a valve that releases bromomethane, a poisonous gas. Turned to the right, the fumes will travel into air ducts that connect to the ballroom and poison hundreds of attendees. Turned to the left, the gas will fill the room where they are now trapped by a steel gate. Unable to open the gate to freedom, Tory decides to turn the valve to the left to save the lives of everyone in the ballroom. Then she and her friends close themselves off in a passageway, using Hi's jacket to help block some of the bromomethane that is filling the ventilation room. The four flare, and then use their super-human strength to raise the gate enough to escape.

Still with an urgency to find the Gamemaster before he kills again, the four teens focus their thoughts on known facts while preparing for a Category 4 hurricane forecast to hit the area. They have orders to evacuate. From a friend, they learn that the ballistics expert they met earlier at the shooting range was an impersonator. The real ballistics expert had gone missing, and they realize from the description that he was the body they found in the sarcophagus. The kids decide to brave the hurricane and go into the deserted city of Charleston to search for the Gamemaster. Ben remembered a G parking sticker on the oversized pickup the impersonator drove to the shooting range. The G parking decal is assigned to a four-block radius in Charleston, so they are sure they can locate the pickup and the Gamemaster. They find his truck and house and manage to get inside. But the Gamemaster gets away. Before he does, he leaves the fireplace burning and a gas line severed. The kids get out just before the house explodes. They continue their pursuit of the Gamemaster into the city square, just as the eye of the hurricane passes over. The Gamemaster is armed and shoots at them, grazing Tory's arm. Like the pack they are, they work to encircle him at a distance as he continues shooting. Hi and Coop begin to charge him from behind, then surprisingly Kit shows up and takes a swing, followed by Coop who knocks the Gamemaster down and Tory who kicks him into unconsciousness.

While the worst of the storm finishes its destruction, the group shelters at the hospital because it has a generator. Tory is shocked to learn that Ben initially had worked with the Gamemaster in setting up what he thought would be a fun time for the group following clues and solving puzzles. When things became dangerous, he was unable to stop the events the Gamemaster had set in motion. From the police, they learn that the Gamemaster was a veteran and a former munitions expert who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. The kids face a trial, with Ben as the star witness. Their school expels Ben. Tory struggles with her inability to forgive Ben, because she thinks he should have told them of his involvement with the Gamemaster. She has a flash drive Ben found earlier in one of the LIRI labs, and she hopes it will uncover some of the mystery of their viral condition. Since the hurricane, Tory notices that she feels a connection to the rest of the pack even when she isn't flaring.

The book concludes with one of the pack's classmates fingering the top-secret research papers of the scientist who was responsible for development of the super virus. He suspects there is something unusual about the four friends, and he intends to unlock their secret.

Christian Beliefs

Whitney says she was raised as a Catholic. She correctly identifies a statue as Saint Benedict. Tory mouths a prayer to herself for the soul of the dead man she finds in the sarcophagus. The kids visit Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery where monks pray continually and follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. The monastery's logo is a capital M with a cross rising from it. Brother Patterson tells them that the art pieces in the gift shop reflect the beauty of God's creation. Their work provides income for the monastery and honors the Lord. In explaining the misconception that the monks don't talk, Brother Patterson says that the Rule of Saint Benedict regards speech as a "temptation to exercise one's own will instead of God's." He adds that conversing with them allows him to spread the joy of God to them. His introduction to a tour group explains that the monastery is Roman Catholic and "focuses on seeking God through communal living. We praise our Lord through prayer, meditation, work and hospitality." A cross tops the monastery church. Tory says that making a retreat as a guest at the monastery might be one way to get right with God. The teens see two wooden statues on the monastery grounds, one depicting the Crucifixion, the other of the Holy Family in flight from Egypt. About to break into the monastery's cemetery, Hi says no one will know; Shelton says that God will know.

Other Belief Systems

Tory's great aunt is her role model, but she also idolizes her. A couple of times, Tory calls on various deities when she needs help or is exasperated. After being caught breaking into the mausoleum at the monastery, Hi remarks that he is not "a Jesus man, but I'm pretty sure getting ripped a new one by a monk is bad karma in any religion." Using her ability to flare, Tory is able to telepathically communicate with the boys and Coop. She reaches "deep within" to tap the power of the wolf.

Authority Roles

Kit Howard meets his daughter for the first time one week after a drunken driver kills her mother. Clearly, he has no idea what fatherhood entails. As the director of LIRI, he has little free time. His girlfriend, Whitney, has a key to his townhouse, and she comes and goes at will. Tory does not like her and refers to her as a bimbo. Kit readily defends Whitney when he sees Tory attacking her or being disrespectful. Kit announces to Tory that he is ready to take his relationship with Whitney to the next level by asking her to move in with them. She later tells Tory it was wrong of them to surprise her with her moving in to the house and wrong of her to decorate the house with her own things. She removes the things she brought in. While Whitney is not yet an authority figure for Tory, she is a significant person in Kit's life. She tries hard to be positive and cheery while being sensitive to Tory's needs, often making her dinner when Kit has to work late. Parents of the three boys are not very involved in their lives. Some of them are grounded as a punishment at the end of the book.

Profanity/Violence

God's name is used with knows, honest to, oh my, thank, swear to and good. Jesus' name also is used out of context. Occasional use of the words d--n, b--tards, moron, hard-a--, jack--s, dork, idiots, dolt, bada--, butt, h---, a--clown, sonofab--ch, WTF, FML, crap, jerkoff, broads, screwing around, frick, balls, b--ches, douchebag, crap balls, wackjob, skank and blueblood prigs. There is frequent use of the words freaking and crap. Ben offhandedly remarks, "I'm going to kill myself."

Ben gets into a fight with Jason at an unchaperoned party serving beer and hard liquor. Ben slams Jason into bricks. Jason angrily tells Tory that he's going to kill Ben. Ben is emotionally distraught when the four find a recently dead body in a sarcophagus. He punches a wall with his fists until his knuckles bleed.

When Tory reels in a fish, she briefly describes its condition as it begins to die. She has Ben throw the fish back with the comment that catching it is the fun part anyway. Tory has a dark dream in which the Gamemaster stalks her in the woods, shoots at her, finally catches her and cuts her cheek with a 12-inch carving knife.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Tory says she and her pack stand out at school like hookers at church. She notices males, regardless of age, around her, mindful of their physique and levels of handsomeness. Tory confesses that at 14 she's never had a real boyfriend; but she used to kiss a boy behind a doughnut shop when she was younger. She finds Ben attractive, but she regards him as a brother. Ben, however, has stronger feelings for Tory, and the reason he got involved with the Gamemaster was to impress her.

Hi remarks that a string of code sounds like a sex position. Whitney wears a curve-revealing sundress on a picnic at the beach. Tory selects an outfit for a party, hoping for "sexy-casual." Hi delivers a congratulatory kiss on each of Shelton's cheeks. To help with her nerves in front of a large crowd, Ben tells Tory to imagine everyone dressed in their underwear. Hi has a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in his backpack. When Tory is about to invade the minds of the boys, Hi warns her to avoid scanning his Internet history because she won't like what she finds. Kit and Whitney live together and are not married.

Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • The kids seem to keep just about everything secret from their parents.
  • How is that dangerous?
  • Why do they do this?
  • How would you describe their relationship with their parents?
  • How would you describe our relationship?
  • How can we make it better?

  • As a newcomer to Charleston and the wealthy, private school she attends, Tory has had to deal with bullying from a trio of girls at school. Apart from using her flaring abilities, what method worked best for her coping with the girls she calls the Tripod?

  • Do you agree with her choices?

  • Do you see anything troubling about a 14-year-old girl hanging out alone with three older boys?

  • What circumstances might arise from this kind of situation?

  • What would you do if you arrived at an unchaperoned party serving alcohol to minors?

  • When Tory sees her best friends getting wasted, she says she doesn't want to judge them.
  • What does that mean?
  • How might her loyalty be misguided?

  • Bolton is a prestigious school with many wealthy students. Tory seems to dislike just about everyone at the school. She calls them "trust-fund brats."

  • Do you think her assessment is a fair one?

  • Tory is able to invade minds to see what they are thinking. She cautions herself to be aware of when she is communicating and when she is being invasive.

  • Why would it be wrong to be able to know what others are thinking?
  • What would life be like if you knew what others were thinking?

  • At the end of the book, we learn that the Gamemaster had been a Marine in Iraq and had experienced some horrific events that led to profound personality changes.

  • Is Tory right in thinking that his war experiences are no excuse for his crimes?
  • Are all war veterans like the Gamemaster?
  • How might the book have had a more balanced view of war veterans?

Additional Comments/Notes

Lying: Though she feels guilty about it, Tory frequently tells lies of convenience in order to keep the Gamemaster and his tactics a secret. For example, she tells her father she's taking the dog for a walk when she is meeting the rest of her pack to search for the second geocache. Without asking, Tory and the boys take Kit's SUV, with Ben driving because he's the only one old enough to have a driver's license. The kids enter LIRI labs without permission and hack into the LIRI computer system. Tory is willing to withhold truth from the police in order to protect Ben, but Ben decides that it's time to tell the truth.

Disrespect: Emotionally upset over learning that Kit has invited his girlfriend to move in with them, Tory lashes out at him in front of Whitney. Tory often is disrespectful to Whitney, as well.

Drugs/Smoking/Alcohol: Kit's secretary smokes cigarettes in LIRI's smoke-free facility. Kit and some other men drink beer while Kit barbeques. Ben admits that he has gotten drunk with his cousins. Tory, Ben, Hi and Shelton attend an unchaperoned party where beer and hard liquor are served. Tory tells herself not to be a wuss. Since she's a sophomore now, she can handle a party like this. Tory decides not to imbibe (she apologizes to Jason for not drinking and says she hopes it's OK), but Hi and Shelton are suckered into drinking games, eventually getting drunk and sick. The three boys are hung over the next day, and they talk about the stupidity of getting drunk and wonder why kids do it if it sickens you — like food poisoning, Shelton correctly concludes. The monastery is famous for its production of ale. A monk tells the kids that their vows do not include abstinence from alcohol. Hi says the intensity of the flare is like being on crack.

Firearms: The kids meet the Gamemaster, who is impersonating a ballistics expert at a shooting range. He has an assortment of weapons ranging from hunting rifles to a Beretta 9mm to an AK-47. He gives a detailed description of a snare gun and how it's set up, as well as the dangers of it and why it is illegal.

Media mentions: Avatar; "Man v. Food"; Monster Squad; It by Stephen King; Sports Illustrated; "Crank Yankers"; "Band of Brothers" (WWII TV miniseries); Call of Duty (video game series); "Dateline"; "Cops"; Coldplay


This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

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