Who In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Who In The World is Carmen Sandiego was first published in 2019. It is an adaption of the first couple of episodes of the new Carmen Sandiego Netflix series, written by Rebecca Tinker and based on the screenplay by Duane Capizzi. The story finally gives the origins of the famous art thief, detailing her early training and how she first came to learn about the criminal organisation known as VILE. It does not really require you to know anything about the character to fully appreciate it.

Carmen Sandiego is one of the most wanted criminals in the world and Interpol Agent Chase Devineaux is determined to be the one to catch her. Unlike most art thieves, she seems to delight in taunting the authorities. She makes no effort to remain hidden as she wears a scarlet fedora and trench coat, yet always escapes with her prize. However, this time Carmen could have bitten off more than she can chew. While trying to steal the priceless Eye of Vishnu, she sees an object that she thought was lost forever and stumbles across an old foe.

This discovery causes Carmen to recall her past – a time when she was an orphan known as Black Sheep. Raised by faculty of a mysterious school, she soon learns that her “parents” are really a cabal of master thieves. Going under the name of VILE – Valuable Imports, Lavish Exports – they take in only the most promising students each year and mould them into the criminal elite. Carmen is determined to join their ranks and, despite only being a child, is finally granted a chance to become their youngest ever member.

Earning a place within in VILE will not be easy as one of her teachers – the ninja Shadowsan – seems to be determined that she will fail. However, Carmen slowly learns that she is walking the wrong path. VILE hides many terrible secrets, even from its students. With the help of a young hacker called Player, she soon discovers that there are far better uses for her talents.

Okay, before I begin, let’s have a brief history lesson. Carmen Sandiego first appeared in the 1985 educational video game Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego?. The game challenged players to travel around the world, seeking out clues that would eventually allow them to capture the villainous thief and her henchmen. The game was a staggering success, leading to many sequels, a game show and a couple of animated series. The most recent of these is now up on Netflix for your viewing pleasure.

I haven’t had a chance to watch this new series yet, but I was a huge fan of the old animated series when I was little. Because of this, I really picked up this novel for a bit of a nostalgia trip and I actually found myself a little disappointed. Although I loved the old series, I never once felt the need to ask who Carmen was. While Carmen’s personality did vary between the old incarnations, ranging from outright villain to anti-hero, the new Carmen is rather different. Now, it seems that she is more of a Robin Hood character who steals from VILE and returns their stolen art to the victims. This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.

Yet, if I squash my sense of nostalgia way back to where it belongs, I must admit that this story is actually reasonably enjoyable. While we don’t find out Carmen’s true origins – who were her parents, why was she abandoned and what the significance of her matryoshka dolls is – the novel does explain why she is a noble thief. It is really a story within a story, pausing after the opening heist as Carmen reminisces about her time at the VILE academy with Gray – a former friend and classmate.

Personally, this framing did not really do it for me. It felt like an incredibly clumsy way to deliver Carmen’s backstory. Gray was at school with Carmen and is present in many of her flashbacks. Because of this, it seemed unnatural that she would be recounting all of this to him as it was mostly stuff that he should have known already!

While Who In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? is very easy to read and certainly action-packed, I did feel as though it was lacking in depth. This is probably due to the fact that it is an adaptation of a couple of short episodes of the animation, but Carmen’s time at the academy feels very brief. There is little more than a montage of classes before suddenly she is in her final exams.

Yet, at only 196 pages, it made for a very breezy read. The prose is crisp and clear, wasting little time on description and making it easy for a younger or less confident reader to follow Carmen’s journey. It ended on a very neat note, wrapping up this little adventure while still leaving a whole host of enemies at large to menace Carmen in the future. It certainly made me want to watch the Netflix series to find out what happens next.

While I basically wanted to be Carmen growing up (ignoring, naturally, that she was a villain), this novel does at least attempt to make her into a decent role model for a young reader. Unlike previous incarnations of the character, she now has a very clear moral compass. She is a fantastic female protagonist who is strong, confident and knows what she wants. Her desire to travel and broaden her horizons is very admirable, as is her desire to combat VILE by “undoing” their criminal acts. I also liked how her relationship with the mysterious Player developed over the course of the novel. Despite the fact that they never meet in person, the two play off each other very well and their connection as two isolated, lonely individuals comes across very nicely.

However, the secondary cast is not quite so strong. A lot of the villains lacked any depth or motivation for their obviously evil behaviour. I mean, if you can recall what VILE actually stands for from the games, you will understand that they are certainly very open about being the bad guys. Tigress, in particular, is incredibly guilty of this. She seems to take an immediate dislike to Carmen when they first meet in class and has no problem with actively trying to injure the much younger girl.

While the cast was pretty diverse, some of them also came across as being stereotypes. The loud, overweight, Texan “Mama Bear” that was Coach Brunt and the Japanese ninja called Shadowsan felt particularly awkward. I mean, why doesn’t Shadowsan even have Japanese name, or the hyphen before his honorific? It felt an awful lot like a non-Japanese writer was trying a little too hard to write a Japanese antagonist.

Anyhow, due to the length of this story, I don’t really have a lot more to say. Who In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? does not have a lot of depth to it but it makes for a fun light read. It may not spark the nostalgia of an older reader like me, but it’s a great tie in for young fans of the new Netflix series or those who have always wonder how Carmen came to be a master thief.

Who In The World is Carmen Sandiego? can be purchased as a Hardback and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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