A Look at Blood Fever by Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson’s 2nd Young Bond novel is a marvelous achievement that not only continues where SilverFin left off but also escalates the perils and hazards our young 13 year old hero must contend with challenging him to the very brink of his physical abilities.  The result is a thrilling adventure story worthy of Ian Fleming as Higson draws us in with exciting fast-paced sequences and transports us to a place filled with fascinating roots in ancient history.  For the first time we’re taken to a foreign location, Sardinia, where we encounter pirates, bandits, a secret society, and the sadism of a megalomaniacal villain intent on restoring the Roman Empire.

Set in 1933 to coincide with the Bond from the Ian Fleming novels, the story begins with a pre-title sequence where we witness hijacking and slaughter on the Mediterranean Sea when a pirate ship attacks and seizes The Siren, a ship belonging to the father of a young girl, Amy Goodenough, who we later learn is the sister of one of Bond’s fellow classmates at Eton. The pirate captain, a Hungarian named Zoltan, kills Amy’s father when he refuses to hand over a precious artifact considered a family heirloom. Amy’s attempt to avenge her father fails as she wounds Zoltan’s shoulder throwing her knife at him.  She and her tutor are taken hostage as the pirates kill the men and leave.  The question remains, however, how the pirates knew that Amy’s father would have that particular artifact in his possession since they seemed to know what they were looking for.

Back at Eton College, we catch up in with 13 year old James Bond who has joined a club comprised of schoolboys shirking the curfew called The Danger Society.  As the name suggests the club consists of boys who crave excitement and danger, but the main part of the club is simply getting to the meeting place as each boy must traverse a series of rooftops without being seen in order to get to the meeting.   If any boy is spotted they risk a “thrashing” or possible expulsion.  Bond brings one huge asset to the group, which is the Branson and Martin vehicle he inherited from his Uncle Max after the events of SilverFin.  His aunt Charmian, who makes a short cameo appearance in this novel, allowed James to keep the car near the school.  Only the boys in The Danger Society know about this, but when Mark Goodenough (Amy’s brother) learns of the fate of his father he has a mental breakdown and attempts to drive off with thoughts of suicide. James hops into the moving vehicle and talks Mark down in time but not before being spotted by one of the teachers, a Mr. Peter Haight who takes pity on young Mark and invites James along on a class trip to Sardinia over the summer holiday.

While still at Eton before the trip, James witnesses some suspicious activity by men speaking in Latin along with the presence of a new teacher that Bond instantly finds suspicious, a Mr. Cooper-ffrench, who takes offense when Bond’s Aunt Charmian questions the usefulness of the boys learning the dead language of Latin.

The Nuraghe de Santu Antine in Sardinia

The Nuraghe de Santu Antine in Sardinia

Once we get to Sardinia with Bond and the Eton College teachers Haight and Cooper-ffrench, we’re introduced to the incredible Nuraghe at San Antine, an ancient tower built between 1900 and 730 BCE by ancient Sardinians of the Nuragic Civilization. Built without mortar or anything binding the stones in place, the impressive structure consisting of a courtyard surrounded by a main tower and two smaller towers stands only by the virtue of the weight of the stones.   Along with Bond we learn a good deal about the history of the region, the culture, and its violent history of bandits.  It’s here where we see a first a attempt on Bond’s life as he experiences vertigo at the top of the tower.  Was he drugged or was he about to be pushed? Bond, sensing all is not right decides to leave the class trip to visit his elder cousin on his maternal side, Victor, who lives with a surrealist painter, an artist named Poliponi, on a sprawling beachfront property in Sardinia.  There he meets a young Italian boy named Mauro descended from a long line of bandits, and the adventure ensues after a strange visit from a Count Uggo Carnifex, a man obsessed with the history of the Roman Empire, who acts as if he were Julius Ceasar himself while hoarding stolen art and artifacts taken by the pirates under his command. We soon learn that Count Uggo is holding Amy Goodenough prisoner in his vast palazzo where he leads a secret society dedicated to the restoration of the Roman Empire.

The story organically weaves its adventure adding depth to the characters, especially that of Zoltan, in refreshing ways that I hadn’t anticipated as I read along.  While Count Uggo remains a megalomaniac throughout, it was surprising to find Higson adding layers of character depth and development to a character like Zoltan who begins the book as a repulsive murderer only to become somewhat sympathetic towards the end despite his deeds to the point where even Amy begins to see him as a multilayered person and not just the murderer of her father. I really like what Higson does with this character and there are a few subtle lines of dialogue from Zoltan that actually resonate with the adult Bond we know from the novels. While Zoltan never fully becomes a clear cut ally, he’s easily the most fascinating and interesting supporting character in the novel. Much of what Bond learns about how to defeat the villain and rescue Amy transpires during his interactions with him. Despite Zoltan’s vulgarity he is an immensely perceptive character who acknowledges the twisted fate he shares with Amy after killing her father.

We also get a proper Bond torture sequence for the first time reminiscent of the Goldfinger torture scene with lasers in the movie or with a circular saw in the Fleming novel.  Count Uggo unleashes upon Bond what he claims to be the “deadliest animal in the world”: the mosquito.  Bond is tied to the ground with leather straps and sprayed with perfume to attract the insects to bite him all over his body without giving Bond the ability to swat them away. Higson paints a very compelling picture of Bond enduring extreme discomfort as hordes of mosquitos zero in on his flesh.  With the help of a local Italian young girl named Vendetta (the girl was named that for a reason), Bond escapes to join the local bandits who wish to do away Count Uggo.  Bond must risk his life once again secretly making his way back to Uggo’s palazzo to rescue Amy Goodenough before it’s too late.

With some references to Fleming’s Thunderball and You Only Live Twice sprinkled throughout, Blood Fever gives the reader a thrilling adventure  putting Young Bond in real danger and demonstrating how Bond’s perseverance, courage, and bravery took hold long before he became 007.  This new adventure in the life of a young schoolboy provides a perfectly thrilling escape for adults and young readers alike. I must say that I’m immensely impressed with just how brilliantly Charlie Higson pulls this off.  With Blood Fever and its remote setting of Sardinia, Higson brings to life a world and an adventure that could have very well have been dreamt up by Ian Fleming himself.

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