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THE SMUGGLERS By Iain Lawrence Delacorte Press 183 pp., $15.95 Ages 10-14

In the battle for boys' hearts and minds, Game Boy and Arnold Schwarzenegger have torn the spine from young-adult fiction. Only the novel mutants seem to thrive - "Goose Bumps" and books based on Hollywood movies.

It's a brave author who's willing to enter this dark fray, but bravery is what Iain Lawrence's gripping new novel, "The Smugglers," is all about.

The story of 16-year-old John Spencer starts at a dead run with a frantic carriage ride over a moonlit meadow infested with robbers.

John is on his way to Dover with his father to buy a black ship called the Dragon and sail it back to London. A mysterious stranger warns them it's an evil ship, "christened with blood," but for Mr. Spencer it's the last chance to save his failing merchant business.

When their captain is murdered just before they set sail, John must rely on the unstable Turner Crowe and his cronies. It's hardly the best way to redeem the Dragon from its smuggling past, but John is convinced he can keep control.

Thrust into mortal danger amid flashes of violence, John must rise to the challenge of proving that honor and courage are greater motives than greed.

Lawrence packs this story with so many cliffhangers that it's like being pushed down a mysterious staircase. Filled with wonderful touches of historical detail that never weigh it down, "The Smugglers" boasts a strong narrator and an assortment of salty characters.

With moldy maps, murderous pirates, sea chases, and a sprinkling of clever clues, this is a novel even reluctant readers will drink up.

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