‘Spy School at Sea’ by Stuart Gibbs is the latest in the middle grade series for lovers of espionage and good writing

Spy School at Sea by Stuart Gibbs

I asked a student who was a huge fan of the Spy School series if I could jump into the Stuart Gibbs Spy School series without having read the first few novels. He said that I’d be too confused. I believed him. Shame on me. I jumped into the series with “Spy School at Sea,” and I was not confused. At all. To the contrary, I was charmed and engaged in the fabulous writing, clever plot, and absurdly silly and yet deadly events that befall our main character. Granted, Gibbs does reference past exploits of main character Benjamin Ripley, and we know that he has a past with his nemesis, Murray Hill, but the fast-paced action and the witty dialogue, not to mention the teenage foibles, all make for a story that is funny, clever, and exciting. No preparation necessary.

Ben and his best friend Mike join fellow spy student Erica on a cruise ship to find the former spy student-turned-evil Murray Hill and foil whatever diabolical plot he is part of. Erica’s parents are MI6, which has joined the CIA in this mission, so Ben and Mike pretend that they are Erica’s siblings, and they all crowd into a small suite on a cruise ship as it departs from Nicaragua to sail through the Panama Canal. And while they learn of the mission at their school in DC, the thought of a cruise on a glamorous ocean liner brings thoughts of a lovely break from school. The truth is no vacation.

In fact, Gibbs has a running joke regarding one of Murray Hill’s henchmen, Dane Brammage, who we learn has tried to kill Ben multiple times and failed each time. We also learn that Ben had thought Brammage died several times (including one fall from the top of the Eiffel Tower) but this muscular giant is resilient, to say the least. Gibbs’ writing is such that a first time reader will absolutely be able to enjoy this eighth book in the series without any loss of pleasure. That’s not to say, however, that one might not want to go back and start the series from the beginning anyway, just to be able to read about all the intricacies of the relationships between the characters.

Take one character we meet in this novel, the drug king known as El Diablo. He might be a criminal, but he’s an ardent environmentalist. He built a huge home overlooking the beach where the Ridley sea turtles lay their eggs so that his henchmen can make sure the eggs are protected. He proudly informs Ben and Mike that, “All my water is heated by thermal power from volcanic activity. And all my electricity is solar. This house creates more energy than it uses!” He explains that just because he’s a criminal doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the environment. He goes on to share that he farms sustainably, uses drip irrigation, and shuns pesticides. The real criminals, he tells the kids, are the gas and coal companies that are destroying the planet.

Gibbs’ sense of humor makes this a book that educators should love as it not only entertains, but educates and prepares young readers for more sophisticated books with humor and wit. We learn about the evil Brammage from his look-alike cousin Bjorn. “He has brought much shame upon our family. My aunt and uncle were devastated when he dropped out of medical school to become a hired killer.” The biting wit continues when Murray and the kid spies are discussing the name of his evil empire, SMASH. He tells them, “Because a smash is a big hit. And also, I destroy a lot of stuff. so it works on two levels. Pretty cool, huh?” When they disagree, he retorts that, “The name is trending very well in the evil community.” Even the first page of the first chapter is a teacher’s delight. Ben is expounding on all the moods he has seen the incompetent principal of the spy school demonstrate. “He had been angry, bitter, paranoid, churlish, jealous, contemptuous, ornery, disdainful, mercurial, obnoxious, flummoxed, confused, passive-aggressive, and just plain mean.” Teaching opportunity!

There’s lots and lots and lots of action. Ben experiences many near-death misses: he is choked multiple times, shot at, and dropped from the side of the ocean liner into the ocean at night in a stormy sea. Gibbs includes a bit of youthful kid romance, and Erica’s father is so seasick he remains in the bathroom vomiting almost the whole time. Altogether it makes for a very entertaining thriller that will definitely hook kids. It hooked this adult.

I guarantee if a teacher simply reads the first part of the first book, kids will line up at the library to check out that book and the sequels. They might then also be interested in “The Charlie Thorne” series by Gibbs, beginning with “Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation” and its sequel “Charlie Thorne and the Lost City.” Another series similar to Spy School is “City Spies” by James Ponti. “City Spies” and “City Spies: Golden Gate” are both wonderful middle grade thrillers that kids who are Gibbs fans will also enjoy.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Simon & Schuster, the publisher, for review purposes.