Boy Nobody – Allen Zadoff

About the Book

Boy Nobody is the perennial new kid in school, the one few notice and nobody thinks much about. He shows up in a new high school, in a new town, under a new name, makes few friends and doesn’t stay long. Just long enough for someone in his new friend’s family to die — of “natural causes.” Mission accomplished, Boy Nobody disappears, and moves on to the next target.

When his own parents died of not-so-natural causes at the age of eleven, Boy Nobody found himself under the control o f The Program, a shadowy government organization that uses brainwashed kids as counter-espionage operatives. But somewhere, deep inside Boy Nobody, is somebody: the boy he once was, the boy who wants normal things (like a real home, his parents back), a boy who wants out. And he just might want those things badly enough to sabotage The Program’s next mission.

Published June 11, 2013
Published by Little Brown & Co
Author’s webpage

I borrowed this book from my local library.


I am not a huge fan of young adult books. I can never seem to get into them. There’s something about the style of writing that just doesn’t work for me. I always feel so divided from the story that I end up not caring at all. That’s horrible to admit, but it’s the truth. I tend to avoid anything YA because I have this predisposition to unfairly judge it, so I approached Boy Nobody with trepidation. On the one hand I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. On the other hand, the premise was so interesting that I seriously hoped I would.

Boy Nobody is an adult book in YA clothes. The main character is a sixteen-year-old kid, but his lifestyle has made him far older than his years. In that respect, he has some similarities with Jorg in Mark Lawrence’s awesome series. These are both protagonists who are far older than their ages show them to be and their harrowing, hard lifestyles are the things that have aged them. There is a sort of disassociation there. Usually if I read a book about a sixteen-year-old, I expect predictable sexual tension and some supernatural aspects for an added thrill. Not here. The protagonist is unlike any character I’ve ever read before.

One reason for this is because he really doesn’t have an identity. The reader never really learns his real name. In fact, you aren’t given a name to call him by until he’s given the mission that the plot focuses on, and that name isn’t real. This kid is given his identity, hobbies, associations, name, and whatever else, every time he gets a new mission. He was brought into The Program at the age of twelve, and at that time he was taught how to lock who he was behind some seriously thick doors in the back of his mind. He’s been trained to forget and become whatever he needs to be to get things done. Zadoff really portrays this in an emotional, riveting, and realistic way. Boy Nobody has nothing, and he is nobody, and the lack of a first name serves to show readers how incredibly anonymous he truly is. His disassociation with the “normal” world is just highlighted through certain moments, like his observation of a daughter and father talking about their day at dinner and his understanding that, “this is what normal people must do all the time.” Or when he’s talking to someone, and he has to analyze their posture and expressions to tell whether they are being friendly, and how many different ways (and how quickly) he could kill that person if they aren’t just being friendly. These moments are sort of casually dropped into the text, but they are all the more powerful for it.

Boy Nobody works to put the reader in the shoes of a child soldier, and Zadoff does this masterfully. The lack of a first name for the protagonist is one aspect of how he does this. The other way is through his writing style, which is first person present tense. This allows the reader to unravel and understand along with the character. We discover as he does. This style of writing makes the story far more fascinating and emotionally engaging than it otherwise would be. It’s a completely different matter when you are looking at the world through the emotionless, trained-killer eyes of a teenager. It’s made doubly powerful by reading this as an adult, when you know how confusing the teen years can be, and how absolutely altered this kid is on some incredibly fundamental levels.

The protagonist slowly reveals the important aspects of his past as the story progresses in short flashbacks often laden with an internal monologue. Usually memories can bog down a plot, but Zadoff uses them as an important tool to give readers a sense of who Boy Nobody currently is and where he came from. This just intensifies the reader’s emotional bond to the protagonist and makes him even more compelling. It’s during the flashbacks that readers will realize how incredibly psychological this novel truly is. Boy Nobody is a lot of things, but I doubt there are very many other realistic and believable (also creative) portrayals into the life and mentality of a child soldier.

The plot of Boy Nobody is an interesting mix of action, intrigue, and personal development. The protagonist, for the first time in years, is thrust into a situation that is incredibly high stakes (not new to him), but also forces him to open up those closed off memories and really start to question who he has become and why. These emotions, any emotions, are completely new to him. He shouldn’t feel, and the cracks that develop in his façade are just as intense and suspenseful as the action packed moments that are peppered throughout the book. The intrigue itself is well done and believable, if a bit predictable. However, Zadoff mixes all of this together to create a fascinating homogenization of action/intrigue and emotional depth that I have never seen before in a young adult book. This is probably why Boy Nothing seems like less of a young adult book and more crossover/adult. It has a depth and maturity about it that is just staggering. It’s fast moving, and surprising. Often the speed of the plot is hidden behind the protagonist’s own personal discoveries and internal musings, but it’s rip roaring.

There’s also plenty of action, which can be bloodier than I’d expect in a young adult book. That being said, it’s never over-the-top. Zadoff uses the action to bring realism to the situations and the protagonist, but he never glorifies the blood or action, and he never seems to use the action to further the plot. He does it right. It can get bloody, but it’s a well done, classy, believable bloody that just makes everything seem so much more real.

As for the fantasy aspects of this book, there really aren’t any. There’s The Program, which is a secret arm of the government, which has a sort of SF feel about it. Then, the protagonist occasionally talks about “projecting energy” or “softening energy” which has a sort of fantasy ring to it. However, both of these aspects are incredibly easy to overlook. Basically what I’m saying is, this book is sort of genre bending. It’s fiction, but it’s not. It’s adult, but its not. It’s psychological, but it’s not. Boy Nobody is a little bit of everything. It can appeal equally to adults or teens, fans of SF and fans of fiction alike.

Boy Nobody is a book that absolutely floored me. It’s full of action and intrigue, but the true story really lies in the journey of a child soldier, a boy who really had no choice, who has been basically erased and turned into a sort fleshy robot. It’s heartbreaking and emotionally jarring. Zadoff’s writing is deceptively simple, but it packs a punch. Everything is properly paced and used as a tool to emotionally engage the reader. The plot is absorbing, the action is well done, the intrigue is a touch predictable but believable. Zadoff wrote a masterpiece. It’s probably the first young adult book that I’ve ever finished and said, “This is one of the best books I’ve ever read.” The good news? It’s the first book in a series.

Bring it on, Zadoff.
Bring. It. On.


5/5 stars

One Responses

  • I am very much looking forward to finding a copy of this book to read, because ever since you mentioned it on Facebook, I’ve wanted to dig into it. (Though I stupidly forgot about it when I went book shopping the other day, and I’m kicking myself for that oversight now…)

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