For those who don’t know, Yassen Gregorovich is an intriguing character in the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz (AH). He was portrayed in the film Stormbreaker by British actor Damian Lewis.
I don’t have access to all the books at the moment, so these ramblings are unfortunately a little short on hard fact and actual quotes. Feel free to point out where I’ve got something wrong or interpreted it differently from how you see things.
Please note that there are spoilers under the cut for several Alex Rider books, including the last, Scorpia Rising.
So, I’ve been wondering if I’m the only person who got very excited indeed in to read (in Scorpia Rising) these words:
his nationality or how many people he had killed.”
I do know for a fact that I’m not the only person who was hoping for Scorpia Rising to bring back Yassen from the dead. And it didn’t happen, unless AH is being more subtle than is usual in books for fourteen-year-olds.
So, I’ve asked myself why the assassin was even mentioned. OK, so AH wanted to give us a flavour of the kind of person who was incarcerated in the secret secure facility. Fair enough; I liked the mention of the weapons inspector being hidden away for ever – a subtle reminder of some of the shadier policies of the previous government – but if the assassin was supposed to remind adult readers of some political point that AH wanted to put across then I’m afraid I missed it.
But if the assassin is merely there to illustrate the kind of person who qualifies for this top secret facility, why didn’t AH tell us how they’d caught him, and who he’d killed, or attempted to kill, when they caught him? It seemed odd to say there was an assassin there without giving slightly more detail. Like, how did anyone even know he was an assassin?
It seems to me that, with that line, AH is saying “We know an assassin, don’t we children? Can we remember what his name is?”
Er, yes, of course we can. It’s Yassen Gregor… Oh, hold on a minute. That’s his forename and patronymic. Because he’s Russian and that’s how they do it. So what’s his surname? We don’t know. In fact, how do we even know he’s Russian? Because AH told us so.
And why did he tell us that? Who knows? Although I suppose he does routinely tell us the background and nationality of his baddies, to illustrate exactly why they went bad. (Or, in the case of Razim, to show they were born bad).
Which leads me on to the next point: is Yassen Gregorovich a baddie? Well, yes, he is. He’s an assassin. He shoots people for money. Can’t get much badder than that. But this is a character around whom AH has muddied the waters big-time. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think Yassen is portrayed quite sympathetically compared to some of the bad guys in the books.
For a start, AH is practically inviting us to admire his body! There’s that stuff – mentioned more than once – about how Yassen is lithe and graceful, like a dancer. So either AH has fallen in love with his own character – it happens; think Matthew Graham / Gene Hunt, or Russell T. Davies / The Doctor – or he wants the reader to admire him, or at least think about him.
Because the alternative – that AH is showing us Alex admiring, or at least thinking about, Yassen’s body – would be a little unexpected given that Alex is a fourteen-year-old boy and most people still assume characters are not gay unless we’re told they are.
But hold on, the reader is a fourteen-year-old boy, too. Or at least, the main target audience is. So, again, why? Why the non-macho details about this character? It can only be to give a more complex view of the man; to show that he isn’t simply a bad guy. He has depth! He has hidden tragedy! He has issues!
All of which is very well, and can be seen as AH gently introducing his readers – many of whom, apparently, simply weren’t readers until Alex Rider came along – to the concept that characters can be complicated. That very few people are all bad, or all good.
Of course in general, the bad guys in Alex Rider books are all bad. And proud of it. While the good guys are all good. Edward Pleasure for example: not a bad bone in his body. Spends his time putting himself in danger in the public interest. And Alex himself, of course, puts himself in danger continually, only in his case it’s because MI6 exploit him shamelessly.
Time and time again they use the fact that Alex is a good guy through and through, that he cares about Jack and doesn’t want her thrown out of the country. That he cares about Tom and his classmates and doesn’t want them shot at again.
All of which leaves us just two characters, by and large, who are Officially Complex: Alan Blunt and Yassen Gregorovich. I’m discounting Mrs Jones here because most of the time she functions solely as a deputy. She knows herself that her hands are dirty, and she admits this to Alan Blunt, but her plans for the future, taking on Alan Blunt’s job, are all for good, and for improving the moral compass of the department.
So, Alan Blunt and Yassen Gregorovich. One, wholly on the side of the angels. The ultimate good guy, working tirelessly to protect the country against whatever threats may cross his desk. And he does it by strong-arming a fourteen-year-old into working for him time and again. He uses emotional blackmail: “we’ll send Jack away”; and straightforward threats: “you’ll have to leave your nice school and live in an institution”.
Whereas Yassen is the bad guy. He kills Ian Rider – although in the book we don’t learn this for quite a long time, if I remember rightly – which of course sets him squarely on the opposite side of the fence to both Alan Blunt and Alex himself. But then Yassen protects Alex, and decides not to kill him on the rooftop. “I have no instructions concerning you” really doesn’t mean “Consider it acceptable to leave alive an agent of MI6 who has seen you killing people and knows, close up, exactly what you look like”, but Yassen spares him anyway, and tells him to get out of the game now, while he still can.
All of which leads me to hope, even now, that AH has something planned for Yassen Gregorovich. We know he’s planning a book which will give us Yassen’s back-story, but we also know that feedback on school visits led him to change his mind about what to put into the final Alex Rider story. He had, I believe, originally intended to put Yassen’s back-story into that.
I have to say, I’m not entirely sure what AH was using for brains when he thought fourteen-year-old boys were going to go, “Ooh, back-story? The reason why some ‘lithe’ bloke on the other side turned bad? Please, give us his tragic background so we can understand!”
Er, not. The answer was probably more along the lines of “Thanks all the same, but perhaps you could leave the psycho-babble girl-stuff for, like, a girls’ book. And does Alex get a gun next time?”
I just can’t get away from the notion that Yassen isn’t there for the teenage boys. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced he’s there for us. And I can’t imagine how AH plans to make Yassen’s back-story appeal to the Alex Rider target audience, so I live in hope that he will write it for us, the