Having just finished reading all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, I decided to dive into Charlie Higson’s YA Young Bond series. I must admit to being a bit skeptical when I was first made aware of the series years ago. I imagined that the series would have little to do with Fleming’s creation and that it would no doubt update the setting to appeal to young readers and present an overall weaker irrelevant version of the character to cash-in on the franchise – sort of a James Bond meets Harry Potter marketing ploy. It wasn’t until I heard Bond experts and super fans on the James Bond Radio podcast rave about the series that I became determined to check it out. After reading the first book, Silverfin, I’m tremendously glad to have started reading this series because it has far exceeded my expectations.
First off, Charlie Higson sets the series in the 1930s making it a prequel to the literary James Bond created by Ian Fleming. Fleming left very few details about Bond’s childhood in his novels. The only time where we get a glimpse of Bond as a young man is towards the end of You Only Live Twice when Bond is presumed dead in Japan and we are presented with an obituary written by M. and Mary Goodnight published in The Times.
“When he was eleven years of age, both of his parents were killed in a climbing accident in the Aiguilles Rogues above Chamonix, and the youth came under the guardianship of an aunt, since deceased, Miss Charmian Bond, and went to live with her at the quaintly-named hamlet of Pett Bottom near Canterbury in Kent. . . . his aunt, who must have been a most erudite and accomplished lady, completed his education for an English public school, and, at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he passed satisfactorily into Eton, for which College he had been entered at birth by his father.”1.
M. elaborates a bit more describing how Bond only lasted “two halves” at Eton when his aunt was forced to remove him due to some “alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.” This sequence in You Only Live Twice is really the only time when Fleming expounds on James Bond as a youth. I can’t imagine that Fleming had ever foreseen the possibility of readers wanting to know more about Bond as a young man. After all, he was in the business of writing spy thrillers and had even gone as far as saying that his books “are not meant for schoolboys.” (CBC Interview, 1964 -5.)
41 years after the death of Ian Fleming, Charlie Higson was granted the rights to pen the first James Bond Young Adult novel by Ian Fleming Publications. Deciding to remain true to the Fleming depiction of the character, Higson’s novel takes place in 1933 as a 13 year old James Bond begins his first half at Eton College. The book begins with a sequence depicting the disappearance of a young boy in Scotland who decided to trespass onto a private estate to go fishing. It becomes clear that eventually Bond will become embroiled in this mystery, but first we get to know him as he learns his way around Eton becoming friends with his roommates and quickly making enemies with an older American boy, George Hellebore, son of the influential arms dealer Lord Randolph Hellebore.
The first portion of the book deals with Bond getting accustomed to Eton and dealing with typical freshman run-ins with older students. He specifically tries his best to avoid the older athletic George Hellebore until Randolph Hellebore introduces a new tri-athlete competition designed with his son’s skillset in mind. We discover that Bond has a penchant for long-distance running, and after receiving encouragement from one of his instructors he decides to enter the competition with the goal in mind of winning only the running portion of the competition. The rest of the competition comprises of shooting and swimming, and while Bond performs respectably in both those segments, it’s the final long distance run where the competition comes to a head despite the fact that Bond no longer stands a chance in the overall standings. Bond catches George cheating via short cuts along the path forcing Bond to muster all his strength and stamina to keep up trying to win the game fairly. After doubling back to confer with his fellow competitors far behind along the race, Bond uses the same short cuts George had used to catch up and wins the race much to the consternation of George and his father.
The story then picks up while Bond goes off on Easter Holiday to visit his aunt Charmian and his uncle Max Bond in Scotland. On the train ride, he meets Red Kelly, the cousin of the boy who disappeared at the beginning of the novel. Together the two boys discover that it is indeed Lord Randolph Hellebore who owns massive property where Red Kelly’s cousin disappeared and they set about sneaking onto the property at Loch Silverfin and into the intimidating Scottish castle. Along the way they receive help from a pony-riding young girl, Wilder Lawless, and an American Pinkerton Detective there to investigate the disappearance of Lord Hellebore’s brother.
We get tasteful glimpses of Bond’s past as we see Bond recall the occasion when his aunt Charmian told him of the death of his parents and we also get some background about each of his parents with his father having joined the Royal Navy becoming captain of his own battleship during WWI while his mother had come from a wealthy Swiss Family. She often stayed behind with young James while her husband travelled abroad on business, but the two of them would vacation together during various times leaving James with relatives including Andrew Bond’s sister, Charmian, who would go on to raise him once the climbing accident claimed the life of his parents. Charmian is a fascinating and immensely astute character. She makes a very strong impression on James and we learn that James ultimately picks up some of her attitudes and predilections such as her preference for coffee over tea going as far as to say, “Tea? Good God, no. It’s mud. How the British ever built an empire drinking the filthy stuff is beyond me.” It’s of little coincidence that she drives James in her Bentley, a vehicle that we imagine James ultimately inherits.
Speaking of driving, it is during this Easter Holiday in Scotland where his Uncle Max teaches young Bond to drive using not just any vehicle but a Bramford and Martin, which would ultimately become the company that manufactures the Aston Martin. Uncle Max proves to be another fascinating character. He’s the sickly brother of Andrew Bond, and in his final days with his nephew he confesses to young James his past life as a spy during WWI having to escape his German captors breaking his leg in the process. He tells young James, “Nobody can hold a Bond forever.” James ultimately channels his Uncle Max when faced with danger later on in the story.
The story unfolds with Bond’s capture by Hellebore in the castle as the elder Hellebore turns out to be a megalomaniac engaged in genetic experiments that bare some resemblance to those that the Nazis would infamously attempt years later. There’s an interesting turn of events with the young George Hellebore becoming more than the two-dimensional character he started out as in the beginning of the book. With Young George defying his father and becoming Bond’s ally the story leaves us with an exciting intense climax with Bond stubbornly insisting on completing the goal of destroying Hellebore’s laboratory despite some opportunities to give up and call the authorities.
While the story requires some suspension of disbelief, it’s still very engaging and not outside what one might imagine Fleming himself might have concocted had he delved into this area of Bond’s life. I highly recommend Silverfin to Bond fans, particularly Bond fans who have read the Fleming books. It really does compliment the literary canon for Fleming’s Bond complete with enough subtle references and foreshadowing to the adult Bond for those of us who’ve read the books without necessarily becoming too esoteric for anyone who hasn’t read them. I’m not sure how much an actual teen reader would appreciate it, but I have to imagine they would need some background details filled for them if they are only casually familiar with Bond as a film franchise. There are some callbacks to the cinematic franchise as young Bond is keen on saying the iconic catchprase “Bond, James Bond” combined with a scene where Bond is strapped onto a table in a villain’s lair, but it’s the subtle way that Higson reminds us of Fleming’s Bond that is the true draw. Indeed, the elusive castle as the villain’s lair is one Bond encounters again in You Only Live Twice when Blofeld uses utilizes an ancient Japanese castle for fiendish purposes.
I suppose it might have drawn more readership had the setting been skewed towards a young version of say Daniel Craig’s Bond growing up in the 80’s but the decision to make this series a prequel to Fleming’s literary character truly makes this a fantastic and resounding reading experience for those of us who appreciate Fleming’s books. It’s a worthy addition to the official literary canon of James Bond and worthwhile for any Bond fan to check out.