The Black Box (2010), by K. V. Johansen

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults. It appears in volume 16.3.

The Black Box

There is something about K. V. Johansen’s writing that grips me and pulls me in.  The Cassandra Virus novels are written for a younger readership than her Warlocks of Talverdin series, and focused more on plot than character, but they captivate in a similar way… after reading what I though was merely an interesting but not profound novel, I found myself thinking of the story and characters for days afterwards.  This revelation requires a far more in-depth analysis; suffice it at this juncture to say that The Black Box is surprising in more than just plot.  And the plot is good.
Best friends Jordan and Helen, the “two Igors,” as they call themselves, are the precocious children of scientists: Helen’s mom is head of a university Computer Science department, and Jordan’s parents are archeologists, while his sister works in AI for the government.  The Cassandra of the title is a sentient AI that Jordan has developed, an AI that has become the children’s friend, but creates a sufficient sense of the uncanny to keep at least this adult reader wondering where Cassandra’s continually developing mental abilities will lead the plot.  When the two discover a strange black “stone” in their uncle’s archeological dig (yes, he shares in the family obsession), strange things begin to happen around town. Significantly, electronic signals fail: as the cover says: “phones don’t’ work. There’s no radio, no TV. No internet.”  For the child reader today, the disconnectedness—the horror—of this situation will resonate.  To make matters worse, strangers posing as bird watchers are snooping around.  With the help of two teenagers from the local historical reenactment society, Jordan and Helen (and Cassandra when she is online) help solve the mystery of the black box, the mysterious object that cannot be fully understood without destroying it.
Johansen has again constructed a cleverly woven tale, with no loose ends or inconsistencies.  Her characters are interesting and true to life; Jordan and Helen are just reaching that age when “the whole boy-girl thing” (11) begins to surface, but their focus remains on friendship and science, something many middle-school readers will identify with fully.
The first two books in the series are The Cassandra Virus (2006) and The Drone War (2007).

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