|First published||July 8, 2002|
|Setting||Miami, Cuba, Russia (Murmansk)|
|Series||Alex Rider series|
|Previous book||Point Blanc|
|Next book||Eagle Strike|
|Genre||adventure, spy, thriller|
|Awards||see Awards section|
In the prologue, two men meet a retired Russian general named Sarov on the airstrip of an Island barely off the coast of Cuba known as Skeleton Key. The men hand over a suitcase full of uranium, but Sarov reveals that he has yet to raise the money. When the men threaten to report him to American intelligence if the general does not pay up in three days, Sarov shuts off the runway lights and turns on an alternate set of runway lights which, unknown by the men, lead in the opposite direction. They try to take off this new path which leads the men into a swamp, where they are devoured by crocodiles.
Alex Rider, having survived the ambiguous ending of the last book, Point Blanc, is working at the Wimbledon tennis tournament as a ball boy thanks to the maneuverings of John Crawley, an MI6 agent, who is curious about a number of break-in incidents. While working, he meets a girl named Sabina Pleasure who is also working the event. Alex spies a suspicious Chinese guard, and follows him. The guard lures him away from the crowds and attempts to kill him. Alex escapes and learns that the guard is a member of the Chinese Triad gang "Big Circle," who were attempting a match-fixing scam until Alex interrupted their plans. Sabina invites Alex to her family's vacation home in Cornwall, but is still being targeted by the Triad, and is nearly killed when knocked off his surfboard, but is saved by Sabina providing CPR.
For his safety, MI6 wants to send Alex out of the country for awhile while they negotiate with the Triad to drop their vendetta against Alex. In order to kill two birds with one stone, MI6 lends Alex to the CIA, asking him to accompany CIA agents Tom Turner and Belinda Troy on what they believe to be a low key mission to Cuba to investigate General Sarov, who is meeting with Russian President Boris Kiriyenko. The two CIA agents are not happy to have Alex along, though he is important to the mission as the Cubans will not suspect a couple who brought a minor with them to be spies. They begin coaching Alex on how to pass as an American.
In Miami, before they make the final leg of the trip to Cuba, Tom meets a salesman who may have ties to Sarov, on a boat off the coast of Miami. However, the salesman knows Tom is CIA and has him tied up. Alex arrives and causes a distraction by setting the boat on fire. Tom escapes, a fight ensues, and Tom and Alex escape as everyone still on board the boat is killed when it explodes. Tom acts angrily about Alex showing up, though Alex does not believe him. It is later revealed that Conrad, one of General Sarov's henchmen, planted a bomb that caused the explosion, rather than the fire. Sarov was concerned that the salesman would reach out to American intelligence.
Upon reaching Skeleton Key, Alex finds a Geiger counter hidden in the Gameboy that his "parents" gave him. When confronted, Tom and Belinda reveal that Sarov has purchased weapons-grade uranium from the salesman on the boat, and they plan on infiltrating the general's house, named Casa de Ora. After they do not return for some time, Alex puts on scuba gear and follows them. He sees a shark, which is killed by a mechanical spear trap which Alex realizes must have killed Troy and Belinda as well. Alex returns to the surface to find that the boatsman has been murdered by Conrad, a henchman of General Sarov, who captures Alex with a paralyzing drug. He takes Alex to a sugar factory, where he ties Alex to a conveyer belt slowly inching towards a machine that will crush him to death. He tells Alex the truth about the nuclear bomb, expecting Alex to be dead soon. However, General Sarov arrives and turns off the machine, and Alex passes out.
When Alex wakes up in the mansion, General Sarov tells him about his son, Vladimir, who joined the army at his father's encouragement. Even though this lead to Sarov's wife divorcing him, he was proud of his son. However, his son was killed by a sniper in Afghanistan. Sarov notes that Alex looks like his son, and possesses many of the same aspects, like bravery. He tells Alex that he wants to adopt him. However, as a precaution he has Alex confined in a slave house on the property.
Alex attempts to escape by hiding in the boot of a limousine from the visiting Russian president's delegation; however, he is caught by Sarov, who has a device which amplifies heartbeats. He then points a gun at Alex, while amplifying Alex's heartbeat, then suddenly turns off the device, leaving Alex to believe momentarily that he has been shot. That night, Sarov has the Russian president and his staff drugged into unconsciousness that night and locks them in the slave house, while bringing the nuclear bomb onto the island.
Sarov takes the bomb on the Russian president's plane, knowing that it will not be searched. On the plane to Russia, Sarov explains to Alex that they are going to Murmansk. He explains that he wants to detonate the nuclear bomb in a nuclear submarine shipyard in Murmansk. The fallout will spread across Europe all the way to Great Britain. This embarrassment, coupled with some embarrassing edited video of the Russian president Sarov has in which the president is drunk says he "doesn't care" (which will be edited to sound as if he is responding to news about the bomb's detonation) will force him out of power and elevate General Sarov to leadership, where he will reinstate communism and conquer Europe.
The plane stops in Edinburgh, where Alex escapes with a stun grenade and attempts to call for help. He is stopped by a security guard named George Prescott, who does not believe him. Sarov and Conrad arrive and recapture Alex, and Conrad kills Prescott.
At Murmansk, Conrad places the bomb on a submarine using a magnetic crane while Sarov bids his last farewell to Alex. Alex, using a form of corrosive bubble gum given to him by Smithers, escapes the guardrail he was cuffed to. Conrad climbs out of the crane and quickly overpowers Alex, preparing to kill him, but the Russian Army arrives and begins fighting Sarov's men. Conrad is prepared to strangle Alex to death, but because of a large amount of metal shrapnel in his body, he is lifted into the air by the electromagnetic crane. Alex takes control of the crane, and drops Conrad into the ocean. He then removes the bomb from the submarine, and goes to deactivate it.
When Alex attempts to deactivate teh bomb, Sarov returns and points a gun at Alex, telling him to put the detonation card back in the bomb. Alex refuses, throwing it into the sea and telling Sarov he'd rather die than be his son. Sarov then turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
In the final chapter, it is revealed that when Alex was explaining the situation to George Prescott, it had been transmitting to his office through his radio. The airport security had dismissed it until finding Prescott's body. They contacted MI6, who contacted the Russian military. Alex is emotionally insecure after what he has witnessed, especially watching Sarov commit suicide in front of him. Sabina then invites him to spend time with her family in France for a few weeks, and he begins to feel happier.
- Red House Children's Book Award
- Galaxy British Book Awards: The Children's Book of the Year
- Lincolnshire Young People's Book Award
- Blue Peter Book Awards: The Book I Couldn't Put Down
- Salford Children's Book Award
- Calderdale Children's Book of the Year Award