|First published||April 1, 2005|
|Series||Alex Rider series|
|Previous book||Eagle Strike|
|Next book||Ark Angel|
|Genre||adventure, spy, thriller|
|Awards||see Awards section|
Julia Rothman, an operative of the criminal organization known as Scorpia, is charged by an anonymous customer with destroying the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. She and Scorpia devise a plan that will involve killing millions of children in the UK.
Meanwhile, Alex Rider is on vacation in Venice, Italy with his friend Tom Harris. Alex is still struggling to accept the dying words of Yassen Gregorovich, that Alex's father was an assassin for a criminal group known as Scorpia. Gregorovich told Alex he would find the truth in Venice, and Alex intends to find some clues to his father's past.
After stopping a purse thief by bombarding him with bread crumbs, summoning a swarm of pigeons and causing the thief's bike to crash, Alex spots a boat with the scorpion logo on it (the logo of Scorpia), and follows it to a large house. Alex, with the help of Tom, sneaks into a party being hosted at the house that night. He learns that the house belongs to a woman named Julia Rothman. After breaking into her office, he overhears a conversation between Rothman and Harold Liebermann, the executive of a pharmeceutical company called Consanto enterprises. Alex finds a brochure with the company name on it. However, before he can read it, a tiger, which Alex had thought was simply a rug, rises from the floor and moves to attack him. A man named Nile enters and puts the tiger back to sleep with a remote control, but captures Alex and throws him in a water pipe, hoping to drown him. Alex escapes through the sewage system and surfaces at in the Grand Canal.
The next day, Alex tells Tom everything that happened on the train as they travel to meet Tom's brother, Jerry. Jerry is an experienced BASE jumper and agrees to help Alex infiltrate Consanto's headquarters. Alex BASE jumps from a cliff above the town, lands on the roof of Consanto, and enters through a fire escape. He is spotted by Dr. Liebermann, who is about to summon security, but Nile arrives and, to Alex's surprise, tells Dr. Liebermann he will take care of Alex, but then proceeds to kill Dr. Liebermann by throwing a samurai sword at him. Nile plants a bomb in the facility, then takes Alex with him.
Alex arrives back at Julia Rothman's house, and joins her for dinner. She offers him a position in Scorpia, but Alex refuses, stating that his only interest is in learning what happened to his father. Rothman shows him the video of his father being killed. She tells him that he was assassinated during a prisoner exchange, and that his death was ordered by the Special Operations deputy of MI6, Mrs. Jones, the woman who has sent Alex on his last three missions. Alex changes his mind and announces his intention to join Scorpia.
Alex is sent to Scorpia's training school on a small island off the coast of Venice. Alex is given a shot which he is told is a vitamin booster. Though capable, Alex admits to the principal he is unwilling to kill and would make a poor assassin. The principal decides to remedy this by having Alex kill Mrs. Jones. He infiltrates her apartment and shouts at her about the lies she's told him, and fires at her, though the bullet strikes a layer of bulletproof glass that had been subtly lowered between them by a button she'd pushed after he first arrived. Ballistics later confirm that the bulled would have gone past her, and angry as he was, Alex was not willing or able to kill her in cold blood. Alex is captured by Mi6.
Alex is briefed on the situation with Scorpia. The organization warned the Prime Minister by letter that they had a program called Invisible Sword, and demonstrates their ability to kill anyone by telling the government that they will kill the returning England football team when they return to the airport, Though heavily guarded, the team drops dead when they arrive at the airport for no apparent reason. MI6 realizes that the plan is much more insideous; the players were killed by being injected with a deadly virus encased in gold; when a satellite sends out vibrations at the right frequency, the gold will shatter and the virus will be released into the body, killing the host. The vaccines were developed at Consanto, and the bomb Nile planted was intended to remove the evidence. The target, then is millions of children in the UK who have been vaccinated. Scorpia's plan to destroy the relationship between the US and the UK is to demand the US stop its military actions abroad, and refuse to "police the world." The US would refuse to negotiate with terrorists. As a result, the children in the UK would be killed. Then, Scorpia would tell the US government that the same thing will happen in America, this time asking a much smaller demand in exchange for not killing the children. The US would then, in theory, agree to the demands, and the UK would be outraged that the US would allow British children to die while caving in to protect it's own children, thus destroying the special friendship between the US and the UK. The gold particles are destroyed from a satellite, which MI6 feverishly begins searching for.
Alex agrees to serve as a double agent and help MI6 stop the plot. After a convincing "escape," Alex rejoins Rothman, who has already heard on the news of Mrs. Jones' death. She is suspicious but accepts Alex into the ranks of Scorpia. Rothman believes that Alex should watch the climax of their plan, and takes him to an abandoned Catholic church in London. There, Scorpia henchmen begin setting up a hot air balloon, to lift the satellite into place. Once it reaches 1,000 feet, it will be able to send out the signal that will kill the schoolchildren. Alex activates a gadget disguised as a retainer in his mouth which sends out a signal calling for backup from MI6. Alex protests that she cannnot get rich killing children, which gives away his double crossing, as nobody from Scorpia had mentioned anything about children.
Rothman searches him and finds the retainer. Instead of killing him outright, she tells him that he will watch the events unfold, and be killed himself, as the shot he received earlier was actually filled with the same gold-plated virus as the children received. The SAS arrives, and Alex escapes, and attempts to climb the balloon. Rothman orders Nile to follow him, but Nile hesitates, as he is afraid of heights. He follows, however, and attempts to throw a sword at Alex but misses because of the sun's glare. Alex realizes that Nile is afraid of heights and begins taunting him verbally while using the sword Nile through to dismantle the satellite. Nile throws a second sword, which hits the gas cannister in the balloon, causing a minor explosion which pushes him off the ladder of the balloon to his death. The fire also damages the satellite, ensuring the schoolchildren will be safe. Rothman, about to successfully escape via a disguise as a drunk old woman, is killed by the falling satellite.
Later, in debriefing, Alex is informed that his father was really a double agent working for MI6 the whole time, and his death on the bridge was staged so he could retire without being followed. Rothman, enraged at discovering his status as a double agent, and feeling personally betrayed as she had developed feelings for him, arranged for the plane he and his wife were flying on to be bombed, killing both Alex's parents. Rothman's personal rage is also why she had Alex receive the vaccine to kill him, as a belated personal revenge on his father.
As Alex leaves MI6, he is shot in the chest by a Scorpia sniper. He passes out from blood loss. The book ends in a cliffhanger as to whether he survives or not.
- Lincolnshire Young People's Book Award
- Grampian Children's Book Award
- Berkshire Book Award
- Gateshead Children's Book Award
- Galaxy British Book Awards: The Children's Book of the Year
- Doncaster Children's Book of the Year Award
- Redbridge Children's Book Award
- BAA and Expedia Book Awards
- Berkshire Book Award
- Lancashire Children's Book of the Year
- Salford Children's Book Award
- Staffordshire Young Teen Fiction Award
- Lancashire Fantastic Book Award