Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BOOK BOND REVIEW: Young Bond's license renewed

Young Bond illustrated by Kev Walker.

The hardest part about reviewing Steve Cole's first Young Bond novel, Shoot To Kill, is not comparing him to Charlie Higson. In fact, it's too hard. So this will be a review loaded with comparisons, and I will start by making a comparison of a comparison that will probably only be understood by Bond fanatics (but that's why you're here).

With this first book, Steve Cole is to Charlie Higson what John Gardner was to Ian Fleming. This is not a criticism! The John Gardner James Bond continuation novels were solid books that carried on the Bond literary tradition for a new generation. But one had to accept that you were no longer in the hands of the original master -- there's a certain Bondian flavor that's just no longer present -- and how you feel about that will have a lot of do with how much you enjoy Shoot To Kill.

Charlie Higson's five Young Bond novels were dark and layered and embraced by both kids and adults. They were also books about loss. They started with James losing his parents and ended with him losing his innocence and a fair chunk of his soul. The Higson books were about Bond becoming England's "blunt instrument" -- becoming Ian Fleming's James Bond. Cole's first book suggest that his series might be more about building the heroic and stoic 007 -- less Ian Fleming's hero than the James Bond of popular culture. Shoot To Kill is lighter and more straightforward than Higson. It's also a book that feels much less about the times in which it's set (more on this later). While there might not be enough thematic meat here for adults, this might serve the core young readership and the overall Young Bond franchise extremely well. Here's another comparison: If Higson gave us Harry Potter, Cole is giving us Alex Rider. Choose your mega-success.

The plot of Shoot To Kill is well handled and the opening chapter has a terrific Film Noir feel and a nice twist. Young Bond himself feels much like Higson's character, and the Young Bond Girl, Boudicca "Boody" Price, is very well drawn. Steve also does a nice job with the secondary Bond Girl/ally, Tori Wo, an LA journalist. The author offers up several nods to Fleming that hardcore fans will appreciate. The first chapter is titled "You Asked For It" (the title of the first American Casino Royale paperback), and at one point James passes himself off as the son of Hoagy Carmichael (Fleming's physical model for 007). One new contribution Steve makes to the Young Bond universe is that James gets his first handgun -- a custom made air-pistol christened "Queensmarch." I expect this will become the PPK of the continued series.

Bond Girl Boudicca "Boody" Price illustrated by Kev Walker.

Bond ally Tori Wo illustrated by Kev Walker.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)
Steve seems most comfortable with the UK locations, with terrific early action set in a Devon movie palace, nicely foreshadowing the Hollywood adventure to come. Steve even introduces a new Bond car: a Hillman Minx. The author obviously researched airships for Bond's Transatlantic crossing on the Allworld, although he does seem to drift a bit trying to find a way to inject action into the sequence, before finding a windstorm that does the trick nicely. But with the explosive cover art, one is just waiting for Bond to get back onboard the villain's sister ship, Zelda, and do what Bond, young or old, does best -- blow it up!

While Steve doesn't quite yet have the Higson touch when it comes to penning atmosphere, he is just as capable with the action scenes. However, Shoot To Kill feels a touch light on action overall, with maybe one too many "tours" of L.A. locations instead of discovering them on the run. The book deflates every time Bond is able to safely return to his hotel (also a problem with Gardner) and talk things over with the many friends and allies who share this adventure with him.

Hollywood is a location that is LONG overdue for a Bond visit, and it's exciting to finally have a Hollywood-set James Bond adventure. Maybe it's because I'm from L.A. and a bit of a Hollywood history buff (I made a point to drive past Bond's Hollywood hotel on release day), but I' feel like the author's handling of the Hollywood locations isn't as well researched or as realized as it could be. There are a few perplexing errors that are hard to get past, such as mentions of the San Diego and Hollywood Freeways, which didn't exist in 1934 (remember Roger Rabbit?). And after establishing LAs famous street cars, Steve has Bond reliant on taking cabs for rides that are in reality only a few blocks.

Bond villain Anton Kostler illustrated by Kev Walker.

Steve places villain Anton Kostler's compound in Beverly Hills -- which certainly conjures up visions of wealth and power -- but this somehow feels a bit too contemporary. The Hollywood Hills or even the arid and up-for-grabs expanse of the San Fernando Valley would have been more accurate to the period, especially as space is needed for a studio backlot and an airship. There are also times when it feels like Steve inadvertently lapses into writing a contemporary, or at least a '60s-set, James Bond novel. Not only are there the aforementioned freeways, but there are also "malls" and even an appearance of a Corvette! (The first Corvette rolled off the assembly line the same year of the first James Bond novel, 1953.) But, again, I doubt any of this will matter to the core readership, who might dig the mentions of Beverly Hills, malls, and a Corvette. (I'm also reviewing this from a proof, so it's possible these errors have been corrected in the final UK hardcover.)

On the plus side, when young Bond and his friends become caught up in a Hollywood Blvd. riot, it recalls The Day of the Locust, and paints a city bubbling with unrest and contradictions. This feels very nicely keyed into the period and here at last is the Young Bond book of my imagination. I also appreciated the astute choice of the Hollywood Plaza Hotel, and the mentions of landmarks such as the Chinese Theater, the HOLLYWOODLAND sign (as it read back then), and the Hollywood Forever cemetery.

Steve Cole is off to a very good start with Shoot To Kill. But like young James at his Hollywood party, he seems a bit star-struck on this first outing, and who can blame him. So like John Gardner in his first book, License Renewed, Steve stays within the formula and guidelines and concentrates on getting the character of James Bond correct, and in this he succeeds admirably. Now here's hoping Steve will write a Young Bond book that will challenge his new fans and himself. It took Gardner three books until he felt he could slip out from under Fleming's shadow and write his own James Bond novel, and he knocked it out of the park with Icebreaker.

I'm really looking forward to Steve Cole's next Young Bond novel, and I'm especially looking forward to reading his own Icebreaker when he's ready to take that step.

Young Bond in action in Shoot To Kill.

Purchase YOUNG BOND: SHOOT TO KILL by Steve Cole from Amazon.co.uk.

Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s for the beautiful Kev Walker illustrations.

8 comments:

  1. That opening chapter evokes images of Rondo Hatton and the Villain gallery of Dick Tracy for me ...

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  2. Hi John.
    Good review. I'm reading the book now, and I'm just at the point Bond boards the airship bound for LA. I was really impressed with that opening segment, so I hope the rest stands up for me.

    It seems like a respectable novel, but agree it lacks the charm of Higson. But in any case, I think the Young Bond novels are most definitely excellent, and in most cases better than the adult counterparts.

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  3. Good review, thanks. Higson had more to play with in terms of Bond's character arc, what with the aftermath of James's parents death and experiencing all this death and violence for the first time. With the Cole era, it's really just an extension of Bond's previous 5 adventures. I'm looking forward to Bond entering the war. Well, I hope some novels will be written about this era and then Bond''s pre Casino Royale days with the service.

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  4. I call it 'Placeholder', although that does sound a little too Flemingesque to do the book justice. The book's dull, it's been researched on Wikipedia, the prose is flat, and James Bond's not the Fleming character. This is an exercise in keeping the Young Bond franchise ticking over in the simplest way for the publisher - hire an in-house hack. Yeah, I bought it, yeah I'm an idiot.

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  5. Interesting that they changed the cover art because the gun shown in the original wasn't being made yet, and let the Corvette stand (if they did--I have the book, but haven't read it).

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  6. I haven't purchased the book yet for several reasons. The first is the setting, no disrespect to Los Angeles (and I had a great time vacationing in the city last month), but whenever a book has a Hollywood-type setting it automatically makes me wary. Its either as if the author is pleading for his work to be made into a movie, or ,even worse, attempting to make it more appealing to an American audience. Los Angeles has also been done to death, with almost every TV show being set in the city, why read a book to learn about LA when I can just turn on the TV. I really enjoyed all of the Higson books and one of the things that appealed to me was learning about places I had never heard about, I was fascinated with James adventures in Sardinia, Mexico and Austria and rate all the Higson books very high on my list of favorite novels, but less excited for "Shoot to Kill"

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  7. Great read, even for those of us above the recommended reading age! Plenty of action, intrigue and plot twists. Well worth a read.

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  8. Sorry, John, you shouldn't let your association with Charlie prejudice your opinion; if there is a drop off in quality it is not as remotely great as between IF and Gardner, a ludicrous comparison.

    Indeed, Cole gives us a fresh, fast paced take on YB. I was foolish to believe Cole might not have the ability needed for the job; I was wrong - he is a capable and worthy successor


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