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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Book Review: The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Jeffrey Westhoff

With its Hitchcockian title and bountiful references to James Bond, Jeffrey Westhoff has written a fantastic YA spy thriller.  Having recently read all the books in the Young Bond series, I found all the references Westhoff makes to Bond quite fun as it feels like a book written with the Bond fan community in mind.  While anyone who enjoys the spy thriller genre will be pleased to read this book, the novel also stands on its own with its memorable characters, its present day European setting, and exciting chase and action sequences.

Westhoff’s protagonist, 15 year old Brian Parker from Wisconsin, seems like a kid I would have liked to have been friends with in High School.  While on a European tour school trip with his school, Brian finds himself embroiled in a real life espionage plot involving a corrupt CIA official, a physicist’s daughter, and a number of dangerous criminals hell bent on preventing Brian from sharing what he finds out about their scheme.   The story starts off innocently enough with Brian and his schoolmate chatting about their favorite fictional hero, Foster Blake, and playing a game of “Spot the Spy” in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Brian’s idolization of “Foster Blake” is easily identifiable as Westhoff’s thinly-veiled appreciation of the James Bond franchise. Most Bond fans will appreciate the comparisons Brian makes between the “Foster Blake” novels and the movies, which serves to highlight Westhoff’s appreciation of both the literary and cinematic incarnations of the Bond franchise.

Brian encounters the “grey” man he had earlier spotted as a potential spy while off to find a German edition of a Foster Blake novel to complete his collection. This time, however, the man is stooped over after having been stabbed by a suspicious man Brian had just passed emerging from the dying man’s direction.  The dying man’s cryptic final words serve as the impetus for Brian to summon all the knowledge and skill he’d gleamed from his love of Foster Blake and put it to use to evade capture on an adventure that takes him to so many different European locations it’s amazing Brian is even able to keep track of where he is. He also finds himself in more trouble than he bargained for at times because he’s such a spy buff. At one point Brian is told,

 “You see, that’s why you’re in this mess, Brian . . . Because you use words like rendezvous and case officer. If you were another kid who spent all his time playing with his Xbox, I could have handed you off to the State Department and let them baby-sit you . . . But you had to have read these spy thrillers written years before you were born . . . You had to know too much about the spy game.”

Soon, Brian learns that even after escaping that he can’t exactly go to the authorities for help because his kidnappers happen to also be watching his family home in Wisconsin.   With the very real threat to his family, he finds that the only thing to do is try everything he can to foil the villains. He finds himself getting chased by henchmen in Nice, Cannes, Toulose, the Pyrenees Mountains, Barcelona, and a military base in San Gregorio.  Along the way he meets up with Larissa, the French teenage daughter of the scientist whose coveted prototype weapon prompted the conspiracy Brian finds himself involved in.

A lover of early punk rock bands like the Ramones, it’s easy to see why Brian takes an instant liking to Larissa as she becomes a willing partner in his perilous endeavors.  The book becomes a lot more fun as it slows down to take advantage of its European setting with Larissa using the crypt at the Basilica of St. Sernin in Toulose as a temporary hideout.  We also learn a little bit about the Comet Line, a trail in the Pyrenees Mountains where French Resistance fighters used to sneak Allied soldiers from France into Spain during WWII.  Larissa even bears a similar surname to the female organizer of the Comet Line, Andree de Jongh.

While it seems at times like Brian and Larissa are constantly running, hiding, escaping, or plotting to evade henchmen, I actually appreciate the few quiet times where the action slowed down and Larissa talked about her background and her interests.  If there’s any critique I have of the book is that I wish there was more time for these characters to just be safe long enough for them have more moments like they had in the Pyrenees before the villains caught up with them.  Too often the characters find that just as they thought they could rest easy for a time, the villains seem to miraculously spring out from nowhere once again re-igniting the tension and adrenaline rush for the characters.  I find that even with a story that hinges so much on chasing and action that the moments I often enjoy the most are when the characters have a chance to breathe a bit and talk freely without an immediate threat just around the bend.

I really enjoyed The Boy Who Knew Too Much and believe it to be a very impressive debut novel for Jeffrey Westhoff.  His love of spy thrillers shines brightly throughout this book.  I think young readers will like it, but I also believe that adult fans of spy thrillers will find that they share a certain kinship with Brian Parker.  It’s not clear whether or not this is a one-off story or if Westoff plans to continue it as a series.  I can certainly imagine how Brian Parker may find himself in a new set of dangerous circumstances where he might need to rely on his experience as a young spy again only next time he won’t need to recall the fictional adventures of “Foster Blake.”  He’ll have his own previous experience to draw upon.  Anyone who enjoyed the adventures of Young Bond as written by Charlie Higson should take note.  Brian Parker of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin is a modern day Young Bond in training.

To purchase The Boy Who Knew Too Much:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

The nook and kindle version are currently $2.99 while the paperback is currently $14.95.

Source:

Westhoff, Jeffrey The Boy Who Knew Too Much. Intrigue Publishhing LLC, 2015.

A Look at Shoot to Kill by Steve Cole

In 2013 Ian Fleming Publications decided to continue its Young Bond series, which had been dormant since Charlie Higson’s By Royal Command published in 2008. Higson had moved on with his own new YA series called The Enemy and a new author was needed to continue the series, which had yielded 5 novels under Charlie Higson.   Steve Cole, who had established a children’s series named Astrosaurs, was selected to take the helm, and in 2014 Random House released his first Young Bond book, Shoot to Kill.

Taking place shortly after the events of Higson’s By Royal Command, Shoot to Kill finds a 14 year old James Bond ensnared in a treacherous blackmail plot after he and his friends discover a film reel they weren’t supposed to see.  This latest adventure weaves a tale of Hollywood moguls, Chicago gangsters, and the Los Angeles underworld of the 1930s.

After being removed from Eton, it’s decided that James would go to Fettes College in the fall, but since Aunt Charmian had business in Mexico, however, James would stay at Dartington Hall for the summer, a progressive co-ed school where students do not wear uniforms and none of the rigid rules and tradition James had detested at Eton are observed.  James soon gets wind of an extraordinary trip to Los Angeles arranged for him as well as a few select students.  Film Mogul Anton Koestler apparently wishes to establish several educational academies throughout the world and had arranged for several students from Dartington Hall to visit his Los Angeles Allworld Academy for testing, research, and comparative educational purposes.  In this once in a lifetime experience, the students would travel by zeppelin to Los Angeles and have exclusive access to Koestler’s Allworld Studios in exchange for participating in the educational research.  Gillian de Vries, the Director of Education at Dartington Hall, informs James that he was selected for the trip to see how his Eton education would measure up against a more progressive schooling method.  The trip seems to be the opportunity of a lifetime, but danger is insidiously lurking and James soon learns that nothing about this trip is what it appears to be.

James befriends his fellow student-passengers before the trip.  Hugo is a brash 16 year old student afflicted with dwarfism; Dan is the nephew of Koestler’s new screenwriter whose father owns a chain of cinemas, and Boudicca Pryce is a bright outgoing 16 year old girl who has an interest in mechanics and prefers to be called “Boody.”  The tight knit group belongs to a film club at the school where Dan is able to borrow or in this case steal film reels from his father’s theaters obtaining access to the projectionist booth.  Oftentimes Dan gets hold of uncensored discarded film reels and screens them for his club.  On the night before they were scheduled to leave, a very disturbing film reel depicting real life violence gets screened and the group looks to James for guidance.  James then finds himself precariously chased and threatened over this film reel and hopes that the trip to Los Angeles would provide some sort of respite from the chaos, but needless to say that’s just the beginning.

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promotional images for Shoot to Kill

I very much enjoyed Shoot to Kill, and while Steve Cole’s writing style is very different from Charlie Higson’s, it does actually suit this story given its setting.  I think some of the negative criticism of this book is based on comparisons to the Higson books. Higson’s writing style is a lot closer to Fleming’s than Steve Cole’s and that becomes apparent from the very beginning.  Cole’s writing in this book is more reminiscent of the noir or hard-boiled crime writers.  At times his sentences are rather lean and stark yet crisp and direct whereas Higson’s writing paid more homage to Fleming’s use of language and sensuous detail.   I happen to enjoy noir fiction a great deal so Steve Cole’s stylistic approach is one that I have always thought would be interesting for someone writing a Bond story.  Fleming was an admirer of Raymond Chandler and other writers who were his contemporaries within the noir / hard-boiled / pulp genre.  He regarded these stories as literary art in a time when many of the writers in that genre were not well-respected in literary circles.  The Bond novels themselves were not very well-liked by the high-brow literary elite so I imagine Fleming felt a sense of comradery with these authors.   For an author to take this kind of approach to Young Bond instead of trying to emulate Charlie Higson’s approach was quite a bold and inspired move although the last third of the book appears to be written in a more traditional style.

There were a couple of moments when I’m not sure if Steve Cole went too far with his stylistic approach. For instance, I can’t imagine young James Bond using the term “coppers” to refer to the police.  I think it’s certainly a term you would hear for that time period especially spoken by period gangsters and their ilk, but it might be stretch to have Bond himself say it as a normal pattern of his speech.

There’s plenty of action and suspense throughout the book.  Bond goes from one dangerous chase to another quite often, but my favorite moments are somethings that happen in between chases.  There’s an instance where Bond crashes a lavish A-List Hollywood party that I think was superbly written and I actually wish had lasted a bit longer.   Cole does a good job depicting the chases and the conflicts James encounters all while leaving just enough intrigue so that you don’t get the full scope of the plot until you’re close to the end.  There are a number of sequences in this book that could very well be cinematic given its setting.  The sequences on the zeppelin were a lot of fun to read, and I think that overall Steve Cole did a fantastic job even if there were times when I missed Charlie Higson.

One of the reasons I miss Charlie Higson is because Higson does a better job at incorporating intriguing historical facts into each of his books regarding the setting and the time period.  In Silver Fin you learn a lot of the little things about what life must have been like for Eton students in the 1930s.  In Blood Fever, you learn about Sardinia and the Nuraghe de San Antine.  Double or Die provides a substantial introduction to ciphers and decryption of codes. Hurricane Gold is set against the backdrop of Mexico and contains references to ancient Mayan culture. By Royal Command places James in a spy thriller prior to the breakout of World War II and does a good job showing the status of the countries involved.  In Shoot to Kill, Cole puts James in Hollywood in the 1930s but other than the party he crashes, I felt like there could have been more historical references to the actual time and setting. I was waiting for a reference to the Hayes Code and the restrictions that censorship started to impose on the studios at the time. It would have been interesting for James to explore the differences in the films that were made pre-Code as opposed to the films that came out after and how some filmmakers found ways to subvert the Hayes code. While the chase scenes were well written and very exciting, I would have liked some of those educational moments that Higson provided so well in his books and it could have perhaps provided a little balance to some of the more fantastical elements that emerge from the blackmail plot.

As far as I can tell, the plan is for Cole to remain on board with Young Bond for a new series of books likely covering the time Bond spends at Fettes College, which would be interesting to see if Cole adjusts his stylistic approach once Bond is back in Scotland.  I look forward to what Steve Cole has in store for Young Bond and I definitely would recommend Shoot to Kill to anyone interested in the series provided that they’ve read the Higson books first.  I enjoyed Cole’s take on Young Bond.  It may be different from Higson, but it was still very thrilling and engaging to read.

As of now, the book is only available as an ebook in the US, but I managed to get a hold of an import copy from the UK.

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Sources:

1. Cole, Steve Shoot to Kill. Random House, 2014

2. http://www.youngbond.com/

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Bond

4. Interview with Steve Cole: http://jamesbondradio.com/podcast-31-young-bond-shoot-kill-steve-cole-interview/

A Look at By Royal Command by Charlie Higson

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

Roan Power

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.

Sources

  1. Higson, Charlie By Royal Command. Puffin Books, 2008.
  2. http://www.spectator.co.uk/spectator-life/spectator-life-culture/9472462/from-fettes-with-love/
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Fleming
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_Royal_Command
  5. http://www.youngbond.com/

A Look at Danger Society: The Young Bond Dossier and “A Hard Man to Kill” by Charlie Higson

The first quarter of this book is Higson’s Young Bond short story “A Hard Man to Kill.” The rest of the book is an overview, reference, and companion guide to the Young Bond series with many illustrations and reproductions of documents referenced throughout the previous books. This book is definitely worth tracking down if you are a young Bond fan. I don’t think it is in print any longer but if you can find a used copy (which is how I got a hold of it), it’s well worth it.

“A Hard Man to Kill” begins with Young James and Aunt Charmian embarking on their return voyage to Europe from the Caribbean on the passenger ship The Colombie after the events of Hurricane Gold. They learn that the ship will also carry a dangerous prisoner being extradited to France named Caiboche. He was originally a French gangster who went on to join the French Foreign Legion during World War I rising through the ranks to eventually become a general. After the war, he became a warlord taking over parts of Algeria using men who were loyal to him committing war crimes that eventually earned him the name “the butcher of Aziz.” The French government finally prevailed in defeating Caiboche’s forces in Algeria but not before he escaped to South America. Eventually, the Cuban government decided to cooperate with France to capture Caiboche and extradite him to stand trial in France.

Of course, Young James finds himself in the middle of a dangerous plot when a group of conspirators try to free Caibosche and rescue him arranging an escape. Fortunately, Bond has two significantly helpful allies to help foil the plot. He has a chance reunion with Wilder Lawless, the girl who had helped save his life in Scotland during the events of Silverfin. She and her father were transporting horses across the Atlantic, and for the first time we see Bond handling the prospect of romance in a more mature fashion. Prior to getting ensnared in the villainous plot, the two seem to enjoy each other’s company and their banter is reminiscent of the kind of banter Bond would have with various women in the Fleming books.

Then, we also meet a young Rene Mathis who would go on to be an ally of the adult Bond in Casino Royale as a French operative. Here, Mathis is part of the Gendamerie Maritime in charge of guarding the prisoner Caibosche. When the conspirators begin their plot, take Wilder hostage, and Caibosche escapes, it’s Mathis who must help Bond providing cover with his gun and alerting the ship’s captain about the villains. There’s a very interesting exchange where young Mathis and young Bond discuss the prospect of firing a gun and the fear that they each have in having to pull the trigger. Even at this early stage, Bond is the braver of the two as he goes about rescuing Wilder from the villains unarmed hoping that Mathis would summon the courage to fire his weapon for the first time when called upon.

“A Hard Man to Kill” is a fast paced engaging short young Bond story that probably could have been expanded into a full length novel had Higson decided to do so. It’s full of suspense, adventure, danger, and even a Bond card playing scene that provides us a taste of what we’ll eventually see in Fleming’s adult Bond. The fictional details for the plot and characters are deftly woven within the historical framework of the time period in which it is set. It’s every bit worthy of being a Bond adventure and I highly recommend it.

I must also say that the rest of the book that acts as a series companion is also very worthwhile for anyone who is a fan of this series. It’s nice to have as a reference if you need to be reminded of an event or character from the previous books and the illustrations and reproductions within are of stellar quality. If you like Young Bond, you NEED to track down and get this book.

Mr. Merriot's  report to Aunt Charmian about Bond's first half at Eton

Mr. Merriot’s report to Aunt Charmian about Bond’s first half at Eton

IMG_20150529_114549346 IMG_20150529_114425829 IMG_20150529_114522487

A Look at Hurricane Gold by Charlie Higson

As much as I enjoyed the first 3 books in the Young Bond series, I found this 4th book disappointing. It does improve a great deal towards the end but I found that the story dragged quite a bit for the 1st 2/3rds of the book. The biggest problem I have with it is with the character of Precious, the lead female character and meant to be sort of a prototypical “Bond-girl”. The story takes place shortly after the events of Double or Die with Bond on a trip to Mexico with his Aunt Charmain after the Xmas Holidays. It’s decided that it’s in Bond’s best interest to prolong his return to Eton and remain in Mexico so that he could fully recover from the previous ordeal / adventure. Aunt Charmain decides she wants to go off on her own private Mayan ruins expedition and decides to leave young James with a family friend, Jack Stone, the pilot who will fly her to her remote location. It’s here where the story gets a bit frustrating because right away we are introduced to Jack Stone’s daughter Precious, who is made out to be extremely unlikeable and behaves as the stereotypical rich spoiled brat we’ve seen countless times and it comes across here as very annoying for both James and the reader. If Charlie Higson had made the character a bit more likeable in the beginning of the book then it might have been an easier story to get through but as soon as we meet her we see her treat the wait staff horribly and pull a nasty trick on young James while vying for her father’s affection. Then, Precious undergoes an enormous and very implausible transformation whereby she becomes a strong-willed heroine summoning up the strength to help save young James’ life pulling him out of the water on several occassions and lifting James with one hand as they tried to traverse a log full of army ants in the villain’s obstacle course towards the end of the book. Of course by this point, the character has become humbled due to the circumstances of having been kidnapped and held hostage, but the entire transformation this character undergoes just felt forced and took me out of the book.

The overall plot presents the reader with certain shades of both Dr.No and Live and Let Die. I just wish the execution and the character development of Precious were handled a bit better. It’s not a bad story at all. If you’re willing to overlook the mishandling of the Precious character the overall adventure is actually quite entertaining. Young James spends most of the story either captured or fleeing from a small group of gangsters led by Mrs. Glass who invaded the Stone house to get their hands on secret American naval documents that Stone had smuggled onto his plane. Their plan was to steal the naval documents and sell them to the highest bidder but things go awry when the plans aren’t in the house and they’re forced to take Precious and her little brother JJ hostage. Young James manages to follow along and fool them into thinking he’s a Mexican pickpocket in order to join their gang hoping to save Precious and her brother when the opportunity presents itself, but of course James’ plan doesn’t go so smoothly and he ends up getting pursued and captured several points in the story. The highlights include Young James learning jiu jitsu from one of the gang members, a Japanese man named Sakata, who had thrown in with Mrs. Glass but who proves to be the most honorable of the gangsters when he decides to help get the injured younger child JJ to safety. The backstories of the gangsters are actually very well done and Mrs. Glass’ backstory is fascinating and includes a nod to Legs Diamond.

The final third of the book is really where the novel picks up. James and Precious find themselves on a private island set up as a haven for criminals and run by El Hurrican, who basically provides this safe haven with the condition that no one who enters the island is allowed to leave. Of course, the criminals think they’ve got it made when they get there but once they run out of money, El Hurrican forces them into slave labor. The only way off the island is to run a dangerous obstacle course called La Avenida de Muerte with each stage in the course set up as a tribute to various Mayan gods. Both Precious and young James decide to run the course and this sequence does make for a thrilling read. It’s just that I had a hard time believing the necessary transformation Precious had to undergo before she could run the course along with James.

Overall, I’d have to say this was the weakest Young Bond book I’ve read so far, but my disappointment is only there because the previous books had impressed me so much that I’ve set such an impossibly high standard for these books. It’s worth the read if you’re willing to overlook the flaws I mentioned, but the first 3 books are so amazingly brilliant that I’ve decided to give Charlie Higson a pass for the elements I didn’t like in Hurricane Gold. I still look forward to the next books in the series.

A Look at Silverfin by Charlie Higson

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.)

Silverfin, published in 2005

Silverfin, published in 2005

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.

Aunt Charmian depicted in the graphic novel release of Silverfin, 2008.

Aunt Charmian depicted in the graphic novel release of Silverfin, 2008.

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.

Uncle Max from the Silverfin graphic novel release in 2008

Uncle Max from the Silverfin graphic novel release in 2008

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.

Sources:

  1. Fleming, Ian You Only Live Twice. Jonathan Cape, 1964
  2. Higson, Charlie Silverfin. Puffin Books, 2005
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SilverFin
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Bond
  5. Ian Fleming CBC Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKtO34YNcFw