Charlie Higson’s final Young Bond book, By Royal Command, is a masterpiece worthy of Ian Fleming himself. I say this with no hint of hyperbole or exaggeration. While the Young Bond series has impressed me overall, this final installment from Higson is most reminiscent of the best of the Fleming books as it contains several passages that reminded me of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia with Love. Higson has done a brilliant job throughout most of the books, which serve as prequels to Fleming’s literary James Bond character. The events of the series take place from 1933-1934 and chronicle the period of Bond’s life that had only been given a brief mention in the cannon of Ian Fleming. In Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, M. wrote an obituary for The Times believing Bond to be dead. Here he writes:
“ …at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he [James Bond] passed satisfactorily into Eton, for which College he had been entered at his birth by his father. It must be admitted that his career at Eton was brief and undistinguished and, after only two halves, as a result, it pains me to record, of some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids, his aunt was requested to remove him. She managed to obtain his transfer to Fettes, his father’s old school.”
By Royal Command weaves the tale of what really happened to conclude young James’ time at Eton and suffice it to say Higson gives us a spy thriller that not only elaborates on Fleming’s passage but also shows us James’ induction into the secret world of spies in the years leading up to World War II, a world that is described to him as a “shadow war.”
The story begins in early 1934 just after James returns from his Caribbean adventure in Hurricane Gold and the short story “A Hard Man to Kill.” James is now 14 and is eager to return to his normal life as a school boy but first he joins some of his classmates on a field trip to Kitzbuhel in Austria where he learns how to ski. His roommate for the trip, Miles, is a talkative pretentious type who thinks he knows everything. When Miles puts himself in danger by drinking on the slopes and getting lost on the mountain, James risks his own life to save him. The ordeal ends with James being praised as a hero but all is not right afterwards. There is a man who persists on following him, a suspicious encounter with a German dignitary in the hospital who fears that someone is trying to kill his “cousin Jurgen,” and a dangerous conspiracy brewing back at his school at Eton.
Thickening the plot is the aforementioned boys’ maid, Roan Power, only a few years older than the boys who James takes an instant liking to as well as the new school bully Theo Bentinck, who learns quickly that while he can’t intimidate James he could still make him suffer by taking his anger out on James’ friends making school life nearly impossible. The book changes gears for each of its three acts. There are layers of mystery that I don’t want to spoil here for anyone who wants to read the book. James gets his first full taste of what his future life as a spy will be like including all the players involved in this “shadow war.” He encounters Hitler Youth, Soviet spies, a communist conspiracy to kill the King, and has his own induction into the British Secret Service and what they do to stem these various plots. Higson weaves an intricately complicated yet fascinating world for young Bond to navigate and all of it is very well- researched and very relevant to the history of the time period of this story.
Roan Power is probably the most fascinating female character within Higson’s Young Bond series. She’s very reminiscent of the femme fatale, very dangerous, and yet very sympathetic. James is blinded by his love for her, and even though she presents a danger to him it’s also evident that she feels something for James. It’s this kind of paradox of women both luring James towards danger while also genuinely caring about him that gets explored in the Fleming books as well as in the Bond movies. She tells Bond at one point,
“You’re a blunt object, aren’t you, darling? Oh, I’m not saying you haven’t any hidden depth. Because I know there’s a lot going on beyond that cool surface of yours. You’re a lot more grown-up and interesting than most boys your age. But you’d still rather take on the world with your fists than with your brain, or with your heart. You’ve got to learn to use your heart, because, if you don’t, it’ll become weak. And a weak heart is easily broken. If someone wants to hurt you badly they’ll aim their arrows at that heart of yours.”
In interviews, Ian Fleming would often refer to Bond as a “blunt instrument.” Interestingly enough Fleming himself was removed from Eton at age 17 by his mother who chose to send young Ian to a “crammer” (a specialized school) to prepare him for a Military College, where he failed to gain a commission after less than a year. It’s fascinating that when choosing a background for Bond’s youth that Fleming should choose Eton as well as a premature removal from the school as part of Bond’s makeup. It further cements the prevailing notion that Fleming looked to his own life for the inspiration behind James Bond. What Charlie Higson has done with his Young Bond series is to not only fill in the boyhood details of Fleming’s fictional creation but also tie in some of the cultural and historical events and themes that one imagines would have had an impact on Fleming himself as a young man.
The title of By Royal Command is derived from a brief encounter Young James had outside of Windsor Great Park after hiding in a tree from a perceived threat from the man who was following him. He sees two little girls playing badminton “on a large well-kept lawn.” The older of the two girls who was about 8 years old asked young James to retrieve the shuttlecock which had gotten stuck in the branches. James happily obliges and politely leaves. He later learns that the two girls were the royal princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. He later also meets their uncle, Edward who was the Prince of Wales at the time along with his girlfriend Wallis Simpson, who would later prove to be the reason for Edward VIII abdicating the throne allowing for Elizabeth’s father George VI to succeed him as the King. The young princess Elizabeth that Bond meets outside the park would become Elizabeth II, who would of course become the reigning Queen during Bond’s tenure as a double-o agent.
At one point when James is introduced to the British Secret Service, he is told
“When you are young . . . the world seems so simple and straightforward. There is right and there is wrong. In the cowboy films the goodies wear the white hats and the baddies wear black. As you get older you realise the world is not so simple. There are men in grey hats.”
James then replies, “And what colour hat do you want me to wear, sir?”
That exchange exemplifies some of what Charlie Higson has achieved in this Young Bond series and particularly in his final Young Bond novel. He shows us James’ transition from seeing the world as a young boy to seeing the world as a man. The saga of James Bond’s time as an Eton school boy and how it all comes to an end informs us about the experiences that shaped Bond into the fictional man that Fleming created after the war. It’s also a well-crafted look into some of the larger and important historical events that shaped the world in the years leading up to World War II. Higson does an extraordinary job weaving the history of the time organically into the story and none of it feels forced. I highly recommend the series not just for anyone interested in James Bond but for anyone who loves history and enjoys a good historically based adventure story.
Though this is Charlie Higson’s final Young Bond book, Ian Fleming Publications recently partnered with author Steve Cole to continue the Young Bond saga. Cole’s book Shoot to Kill takes place after the events of By Royal Command and was released in the UK in 2014 and is available only as an ebook in the US as of this writing.
- Higson, Charlie By Royal Command. Puffin Books, 2008.