Book Review: Strike Lightning by Steve Cole (Young Bond)

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Young Bond

Steve Cole’s 3rd Young Bond book Strike Lightning comes right off the heels of his second effort Heads You Die.  Cole took over the Young Bond series from Charlie Higson who ended his tenure with By Royal Command which details the events surrounding Bond’s expulsion from Eton.  The Young Bond books themselves are a truly ambitious undertaking.  For those who are unfamiliar with the series, it attempts to fill in the gaps of Bond’s childhood using only the meager details that Fleming included in the his Bond novels, particularly from the obituary featured in the novel You Only Live Twice.  The series has followed young James throughout the 1930s starting at about the point when he was about 13 with Charlie Higson’s SilverFin.

Now with this latest installment, we find James shortly after his first term at Fettes College in Scotland where he finishes his education according to Fleming. Right before Christmas Break, James witnesses the death of a fellow student engaged in suspicious mechanical experiments with a professor. James stubbornly refuses to accept the school’s official conclusion that the death was an accident inadvertently caused by James being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joined by his Etonian school friend Perry Mandeville, James decides to investigate the murder of his young friend only to find himself in the middle of a high stakes international weapons smuggling conspiracy with the added danger of a secret weapon possibly falling into the hands of Nazi Germany.

I don’t want to give away any SPOILERS regarding the nature of the secret weapon, but it’s one of those things that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief.  In his postscript, Cole details about how such a weapon might have been realized in the 1930s, but even he admits it’s one of those things that while not entirely impossible would have been highly improbable for the period of time in which this story takes place.

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Maximilian Blade

There are quite a few antagonists for James to square off against but not all of them turn out to be who we think they are when we first encounter them.  This is the first instance since Higson’s By Royal Command I could think of where characters employ a kind of subterfuge to disguise their true motives.  The problem for young James is that throughout the book, he has to evade all these antagonists at various times because it would appear that they are all working together in a conspiracy with serious ramifications beyond the murder of his school friend Marcus.  First, there’s Dr. Randolph Whittaker, the science teacher who the students at Fettes refer to as Captain Hook because his hand had been blown off in The Great War.  James’s friend Marcus is killed in Whittaker’s experiment. Then there’s Whittaker’s 18 year old female assistant Herta, who tries to obstruct Bond’s inquiries into the events surrounding Marcus’s death. Both Herta and Dr. Whittaker appear to be using their positions at Fettes College to facilitate weapons research for a disabled owner of a weapons manufacturing company named, Maximillian Blade.  Finally, there’s Ambassador Grünner who appears to be procuring weapons for the Nazis.  All these characters intimidate, obstruct, and harass James at one point or another until James uncovers the truth behind their conspiracy.

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Ambassador Grünner

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Kitty Drift

Luckily, James has some help along the way. He enlists the help of Perry Mandeville, who we last saw at Eton before James was expelled. He also meets up with this book’s Bond Girl – Kitty Drift, a brash, smart, and socially awkward young woman who also happens to be a train enthusiast.  Kitty’s skill set comes in handy and her obsession with train schedules and a mysterious “ghost train” all come to the forefront to help James along the journey, a journey that begins at Fettes College in Scotland, takes him to the hamlet of Ruskie and transports him to The Hague in the Netherlands and finally to an area just south of Düsseldorf in Germany where you can imagine some most perilous dangers await.

At times, Cole offers up a very vivid picture of James’s innermost thoughts and feelings.  At the beginning, he starts to dwell on the fact that since his parents died, he hadn’t truly ever felt at home except for the times when “danger [is] biting at his heels.” James was a child orphaned at the age of 11, and since then his Aunt Charmian has seen to his upbringing, however, much of his time has been spent boarding between Eton and Fettes as well as with the thrilling adventures James has found himself in throughout these 8 novels in the Young Bond series. From very early on in the series, James developed quite a taste for danger and for using his skill set and ingenuity to save himself as well as others.  By the end of Strike Lightning, we see a bit of a shift in James’s thinking about the nature of war and weaponry.  Someone along the way had lectured him about how weapons can be just as much a deterrent to war as they are a tool in warfare itself. He’s told that “Weapons save lives,” but then he asks himself “Is that what I’m becoming?” For the first time, we see Bond briefly confront the realities of his future life as an agent prior to him even realizing what his fate has in store.  It’ll be interesting to see how Cole explores this in his next and final Young Bond entry Red Nemesis due out in the Spring of 2017.

Strike Lightning is a fast paced story with many chases, some actual spying, and many thrilling confrontations.  If you enjoy the series you’ll enjoy this entry as long as you allow yourself to suspend disbelief a little which usually comes with the territory anyway with Bond.

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Steve Cole at Fettes College

Steve Cole was very meticulous in his research for this book and he actually visited Fettes College to find out what life was like there for students in the 1930s.  The school put him in touch with some actual Fettes College alumni from the era and one gets a good sense of the authenticity regarding his descriptions of James’s life at Fettes at the beginning of the book. He also went to The Hague and visited the Hotel des Indes where a pivotal scene takes place so that he could accurately describe the sequence.

Here are my previous reviews of the books in the Young Bond series.

  1. SilverFin by Charlie Higson
  2. Blood Fever by Charlie Higson
  3. Double or Die by Charlie Higson
  4. Hurricane Gold by Charlie Higson
  5. Danger Society and “Hard Man to Kill” short story by Charlie Higson
  6. By Royal Command by Charlie Higson
  7. Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole
  8. Heads you Die by Steve Cole

Heads You Die Review

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Young James

Heads You Die is the 7th novel in the Young Bond series and the second book written by Steve Cole after Charlie Higson’s monumental first five novels in the series.  This book picks up right after Cole’s last offering, Shoot to Kill, where Bond thwarted a dangerous Hollywood blackmail scheme. James (about 14 or 15) and his new school friend Hugo, a 16-year-old boy afflicted with dwarfism, are now in Cuba staying with family friend of Aunt Charmain, Dr. Hardiman prior to embarking on their return trip to Europe.  We know from Fleming’s brief writing on Bond’s youth that Bond will eventually end up going to Fettes College in Edinburgh to complete his education, but Heads You Die has other plans in store for young Bond.  This is quite simply Steve Cole’s best Young Bond novel so far especially for those readers who may have been discouraged by the Hollywood setting of the previous book.  The Caribbean is prime Fleming territory and Cole knows this and utilizes it to optimum effect.

The plot is set in motion when Dr. Hardiman is harassed and then kidnapped by a dastardly villain named Scolopendra, a native of the island who has achieved wealth and power by acquiring a vast and comprehensive knowledge of the island’s botanical treasures.  He needs Dr. Hardiman to work on a mysterious secret project and uses his henchmen to intimidate anyone who stands in his way. James suffered through several encounters with the aptly named El Puňo so christened due to the fact that after the massive man lost his hand, he had a block of granite fixed on to his stump carved into the shape of a fist.

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In addition to Hugo, Bond works with a new set of allies.  Jagua is Scolopendra’s daughter

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Jagua

who has grown disgusted with her father’s cruel methods and Maritsa is Jagua’s best friend.  Jagua is probably the strongest female character of all the Young Bond books.  She’s fiercely rebellious and is able to handle multiple dangers to achieve her goals.  She’s actually very reminiscent of Judy Havelock from Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only short story. Their motivations are different of course but their determination and their strong wills are very much similar. Together the group figures out that the only way to rescue Hardiman and end Scolopendra’s mysteriously cruel secret project is to get some kind of leverage to use against Jagua’s father. A strong box on a sunken cruiser may hold the key to foiling Scolopendra’s plans, but first they must dive.   Here’s where Cole unleashes his inspiration from Fleming. The primitive diving equipment utilized by Jagua and Maritsa, who have grown accustomed to diving provides quite a challenge for young James. With a primitive diving helmet attached to hoses and bellows for air, Bond must dive deep down into the water to recover a mysterious strong box with Hugo pumping the bellows to provide air to the homemade helmet under water.  As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge to navigate, young James promptly discovers he isn’t alone and a thrilling underwater action sequence ensues.

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Scolopendra

Bond must also contend with the mysteriously veiled woman named La Velada who has Scolopendra under her spell much to Jagua’s contempt and decipher what to make of her connections to Russian Secret Police. Multple dangers are in store for Bond to contend with including many chases, being shot at by La Velada, and hiding while a murder takes place.  The following sequences gives us a glimpse at how Cole invests the readers in the psyche of Bond much like Fleming had done.

“ One thought kept spinning around in his head:  If La Velada’s bullet had hit me yesterday, I’d be a corpse on the floor myself. Now Scolopendra had executed a man, and she hadn’t even flinched; clearly they were two of a kind. James shuddered. To shoot a man dead in cold blood, at point-blank range . . .

I could never do that.

While demonstrating just the right amount of restraint, here Cole invests us in Bond’s youth and innocence in a way that foreshadows the man that James will become.  These experiences throughout the Young Bond novels are slowly shaping who James will be, but at this stage the concept of killing in cold blood is shocking to the young man and appropriately so. Clearly, Bond doesn’t know how any human being could possibly commit an act of brutality without remorse or any emotional effect whatsoever.  At the same time, Bond is constantly finding himself in dangerous situations in circumstances far beyond his control.  Take this quote from an earlier chapter:

“Heart hammering as he raced away, James knew that he would never get used to the thrill of danger.  That was its allure.  So much of life was routine and boring, but danger had no rules.  It happened anywhere, could take so many forms.

‘And it looks me up wherever I go,’ he muttered to himself.”

Note the italicized emphasis on the word “never.” Danger is something he would “never” get used to, but he still relished the thrill of it.   For now, in James’s psyche the dangerous situations are not thrills that are sought after but when he happens to come across said danger he enjoys it on some level because he contrasts it with “boring” and “routine” regular life.  It should therefore come as no surprise that the adult Bond would subscribe to a life that guarantees danger with every mission perhaps to relive the same childhood thrill.

Heads You Die is a fantastic novel and I look forward to Steve Cole’s 3rd book, Strike Lightning due out in September where we will finally see how Bond settles into life at Fettes College.  While I don’t blame anyone for missing Charlie Higson, Heads You Die has convinced me that Steve Cole has put Young Bond on the right course.  Not only is able to deliver thrilling action sequences for young james, he also delivers on building upon the character we’ve gotten to know in the previous books.  I highly recommend this latest book and I have no doubt that Strike Lightning will continue to provide the kind of suspense and thrills to exceed our expectations as Bond fans.

  • As a side note, I highly recommend acquiring the limited edition hardcover of Heads You Die available only as an import if you live in the US. Cole provides his insights about where he drew his inspiration for the diving sequences with a notable selection from Fleming’s short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity.”  He also provides a deleted / altered scene from his book for context, which gives the lucky reader a brief glimpse at the creative process involved in writing a Young Bond book.

review by Jack Lugo

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