Thursday, January 5, 2006

BOOK BOND REVIEW: A more mature Young Bond

For this old 007 fan, Charlie Higson's first Young Bond novel, SilverFin, was a mixed bag. Clearly a book written for a preteen target audience, it too often seemed to mimic a Harry Potter adventure. A risky concept this Young Bond idea, and in SilverFin, author Higson and the 007 copyright holders showed signs of understandable uncertainty.

This is NOT the case with Young Bond Book 2: Blood Fever, which takes a confident quantum leap into maturity and gives Bond fans of all ages one of the best James Bond novels yet written. Notice I didn't qualify this by saying "Young Bond" or "continuation" novel. I said JAMES BOND novel because this is a book that could have come from the pen of Ian Fleming.

The key difference seems to be that SilverFin was written as a children's book (that could still be appreciated by adults) while Blood Fever appears to have been written with a more adult readership in mind. This is a tougher, darker, much more violent book than SilverFin. It even includes a classic Bondian torture scene (but don't panic, parents, the torture is more about endurance than person-to-person sadism). Not only is the content of the book much more adult, but so is the form. Words like "hell" and "damn" flow freely in descriptive passages as the tension mounts. But because Blood Fever chronicles the adventures of a 13 year old, it's still a novel young readers will find thrilling. However, with its surprisingly high body count, Blood Fever might not meet with a chorus of approval from parents and grade school teachers, as did its predecessor. This book is bloody and dangerous, just as a James Bond novel should be, and it may need to be read beneath the sheets at night by flashlight or smuggled into the back bleachers of the schoolyard. Good! This is exactly where a James Bond book should be read. Ian Fleming would be proud.

Plotwise, Blood Fever spends far less time at Eton than did SilverFin, getting Bond quickly to Sardinia where the bulk of the novel is set. The exotic setting clearly inspired author Higson, who infuses his story with a terrific sense of location -- its history, culture, its sights and smells. This is something that was always a highlight of the best Bond novels by Fleming and later Raymond Benson, and it's great to see the tradition continue in the Young Bond series.

As with SilverFin, Blood Fever's narrative is driven by the slow unpeeling of mystery and the discovery of character rather than nonstop action one might expect (or dread) from something bearing the James Bond name. But make no mistake. Blood Fever does contain action. Clues to the subterranean caper simmer until it all boils over into a series of action-packed climatic set pieces, culminating with a scene of destruction as spectacular as anything in a big-budget James Bond film.

The villain in Blood Fever, Count Ugo Carnifex, is a true Bond baddie in the most classic sense, with a lair and scheme reflecting every inch of his megalomania. This is the best drawn Bond villain, book or film, we've encountered in some time, even if his plot isn't of the "ticking clock" variety. Secondary characters are also marvelously conceived, particularly the pirate Zoltan the Magyar and the delicious Vendetta. Amy Goodenough, who exists largely in a parallel storyline, is a true Bond Girl in the best literary sense and carries her part of the narrative so authoritatively, her passages could have been plucked from her own novel.

But it's the character of young Bond who stands head and shoulders above all others. The timid, apologetic youngster of SilverFin is long gone. Here, we have a teenage James with all the confidence, athletic skill, and luck of Ian Fleming's secret agent. He coolly defies the villain, finds kinship with bandits, and derives visceral excitement by diving off high cliffs and driving fast cars. When forced into a gladiatorial boxing match with a much larger boy, Bond relishes the opportunity to "get his fight on." This Bond is no Harry Potter clone or Alex Rider wannabe. This is the boy who will become 007 and who could kick the pixy dust out of any character in the Potter universe.

One thing that is still not a part of the Young Bond universe, even in this more mature version, is sex. However, there is some simmering eroticism in how Ugo's decrepit sister leers at handsome young James, and clearly, the animalistic Vendetta has some carnal curiosity. Bond even delivers his first "hard kiss on the mouth" in Blood Fever. But that's as far as Higson takes it. Bond's resistance to his female admirers seems more rooted in chivalry than nervous preadolescence (as in SilverFin), and besides, danger is always too close for such "distractions." However, with Higson's writing abilities and IFP's willingness to push the boundaries, one wonders if the series may take a chance down the road. But, for now, Higson and the copyright holders are keeping the series "child safe" in this regard.

Some Bond fans have resisted the Young Bond series based on concept alone. Even I admitted that SilverFin wouldn't change the minds of the most entrenched fans. However, with Blood Fever, that resistance is now foolish. Bond fans are denying themselves a better Bond adventure than most of the recent James Bond films with their overblown action and under drawn characters. Here, that formula is reversed. There has been much talk lately about bringing Bond "back to basics." Well, those basics are being practiced right here in the Young Bond series.

So for you holdouts, my advice would be to take the plunge with Blood Fever. Young or old, this is James Bond at his very best!

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