Contains mild spoilers.
Oh, what’s the point?
I don’t appear to be the target audience so this review is subject to the obvious criticism that I might as well be reviewing the merits of kolkhoz subsistence or line dancing or rohypnol.
There are two things to review/abuse here. One is the book qua book. The other is the concept of Young Bond, which for many, self included, strikes one as equally welcome as unsolicited emails promising one something at the Paris Hilton and similar in wisdom to any sort of spin-off and, further, in appearing to deny that the James Bond character has always been adult and that, accordingly, “James Bond” is literary synonym for adult fantasy (and that’s pretty much all it is), about as appealing a spin-off as “Schindler’s List II: Goebbels finds the Tipp-Ex” or “Dial J for Jurder” or “Star Wars Episode 0: The Foetus Yoda”.
On that last forced analogy, worth forcing it further until it squeaks. Wildly popular concept is reinvigorated years down the line by those in charge of the rights going “back in time” and attempting to display the genesis of (cough) revered characters. However, this may be where the analogy ends (and should end, lest I bore you); there always appeared to be a demand for the Star Wars prequels (albeit one instigated by its creator) and it’s their execution that appears to have engendered a collective chin-stroking; anticipated idea, indifferently done. However, isn’t this the converse?: indifferent idea, done … well, that’d be telling, but was there ever a demand for Young Bond? Not apparently one instigated by his creator, nor by any following him to this point. The laws of supply and demand seem to be out of kilter here–the supply is coming where the demand has yet to be readily identified.
At least within the concept of “James Bond” itself. For whilst it’s now a moot question, query whether this really would have happened without Harry Potter. It’s inescapable, granted, that teenage boys will go to school and, if Eton rather than one of these superannuated day-care centre hotbeds of pilfering some poor sods have to cope with (Harrow), spend most of their time there so, equally granted, if one is going to tell a tale about such a teenage boy, it will be based in part at Eton. Comes back to the question, though–why tell the tale about the teenage Bond? Nobody else wanted to. Nobody appeared to have demanded it (and hence the shock and awe around these parts and others when the concept was first hurled at us a while ago). Where has this demand come from for tales of chaste derring-do with elements of the fantastical based at (cough) antiquated schools? It’s not hard to recognise that description and I’m not sure it’s in James Bond, a corrupted adult killer and killer of adults, permanently on the stage of burn-out, keeping himself going through meaningless sex, a job he claims to despise (and thereby exposes himself as an unlovely hypocrite) and particularly superficial materialism (I appreciate the tautology). Where in his inventor’s frustration at not being able to eat what he wanted, smoke as much as he wanted, drive as fast as he wanted and knob as many pretty but wounded birds in weird SM fantasy…um…as he wanted, and thereby creating a turbocharged version of himself, is a teenage kid? Whilst it’s been said (and by the man himself) that there’s adolescence in James Bond, it’s the futile attempt of an ageing and disappointed man to live as an adolescent, not actual adolescence, that’s the key to it.
As Ken Follet observed in The Independent on 3 March 2005 “I read Casino Royale when I was 12. It changed my life. Bond knew about all that intruiged me: cars, cocktails, guns and most of all girls”. Note the age. Note the things the reader was looking for. Can Young Bond satisfy the needs of the twelve-year old when James Bond already does? Can Young Bond satisfy the twelve-year old who would want to read something shocking and illicit and something just ever-so out of reach?
Also, why tell the tale of the early-teenage Bond without showing the development into the adult Bond (or “James Bond”). It appears–on the basis of Chiggy’s interview here – that this series will end before the more adult fantasy elements take charge, so it doesn’t look like book four will be entitled “Two Balls of Tepid Spunk up a Slack Crimson Flue”, which given that the character seemed to be a byword for thrilling the suburban adult male when it first appeared, appears something of a lost opportunity.
And, having read SilverFin, there’s now another reason for frustration at the existence of Young Bond, because it means firstly that Mr Higson isn’t writing the real thing and secondly that what is a jolly fun read (after a spluttering start) is actively spoiled by its association to “James Bond”. Replace the name “James Bond” with absolutely anything else (and given that the initial idea was that it was a “nothing” name, it should be capable of such necessary vandalism) and the book is a stormer. Perhaps we all have too much baggage to enjoy it properly. I know I do, and feel frustrated as a result. It’s an entertaining read about a lad at a school who gets himself into a bit of a scrape but the lead character could have gone by any other name and little would really have been lost, and probably more credibility gained. Should entertaining storytelling like this have to ride on the coat-tails of a concept that it doesn’t really fit? The result is damage done to a perfectly fine, fun tale, and another sort of damage done to a concept–the written James Bond–that really doesn’t need any more damaging at the moment.
As it stands, the book is the equivalent of Chiggy winning at crocodile wrestling; I admire him for the result, but I remain to be persuaded that it’s a terribly sensible idea in the first place.
Chiggy will say that the concept is not Potter. Generally, it does avoid Potter as much as it can, although the red headed pal and feisty female chum seem…reminiscent. Potter has the wizard thing, and (save for a few bits in Muggle world) a totally invented environment which of itself creates interest–the first book and large parts of the second book involve still getting used to the concept and effectively, the school itself is the story. Here, Eton is treated as the kicking-off point and although there’s a fair amount of true-to-life place-names and customs referred to, there seem to be some gaps (I can’t recall if it’s ever identified which house Bond belongs too, although this is probably deliberate to avoid the Gryffindor connections–although if this is as confidently “not Potter” as is asserted, why not identify the house?). Given that there are limited ways in which one may bend and shape a real-life place, it’s a good decision not to keep Bond in the environment for too long and get him away from it (even if that does rely here on a staggeringly unlikely coincidence) so something more capable of bending to Chiggy’s fecund imagination can be used. This rather suggests that in due course Eton may have to take a back seat, and accordingly, it won’t matter where Bond was at school–frankly I don’t care whether it was Eton or Fettes and if the remaining books take the same attitude, it won’t really matter because very little of real import will happen there.
SilverFin bears a plot that is no more adult and no more childish than “James Bond saves the Cannes Film Festival” or one involving an invisible car, a talking parrot or a supercriminal gutting an Alpine sports club and hypnotising British dolly birds to love marzipan or whatever it was. Those that die, die nastily; MacSawney meets Hannibal (not the bit you’re thinking – it isn’t that graphic) and the finding of Meatpacker Moran’s body on (about) page 226 (and what it has been subjected to) is very, very (and gratifyingly) nasty (although this does rather put to bed the concept that this is a children’s book, and therefore the entire concept of Young Bond and therefore why wasn’t Chiggles engaged to write James Bond rantrantrant). The villain’s scheme in the development of eugenics is an “amusing” and genuinely creepy nod not to “Bond-lore” (ugh) but to what would come with Aryan “culture” (the physical description of George Hellebore is a less subtle reference), although the relationship between the villain and his brother reminded me of Serpent’s Tooth and a similar-ish scheme. And Frankenstein. See? We are capable of thinking outside “Bond”. Just.
For those determined to cling to the wreckage, what of it is identifiable “Bond”? Calling a horse “Martini” seems a bit forced, the introduction of May the housekeeper, well…umm… although plusses are that the villain gets a suitably OTT description, this “young boy who gets himself into a scrape, call him John Brown or Jehosephat Beelzebub” goes through Hell, there’s bits about the Bentley and badinage over a meal between Jacob Brownowski (the Ascent of Bond? Oh, never mind) and the villain (although most unlikely coming from the mouth/mind of a thirteen year old kid, frankly). And, although chaste, there’s a bit of romping between Jesus Bellend and “Wilder Lawless”, which is a stupid name and just crammed in there for “Bond” referencing when she could just as easily have worked with the name Madge or Jenny or Turbo. There’s probably loads more but what was particularly enjoyable was that if there were, they were not shouting out loud about “Bond knowledge” (this means you, Mr Benson) and therefore not getting in the way of what is a fun thing. Let it not be recognisably “Bond”–it really should have nothing to do with “James Bond” anyway–and you’ll enjoy it more. Greatly.
The one point at which it works, and cleverly, is in the preface; an unnamed boy, thinking of his recently deceased father, goes fishing at Loch Silverfin; there are teases to make the reader with redundant knowledge of “James Bond” believe it is Bond; the comeuppance for the character is ours, too. Neat. I have to say I fell into that trap. Nice to have a “Bond” book surprise one now and again.
Weaknesses? There’s waaay too much in the (terrible) opening chapter, which really isn’t representative of the whole (and is the opening chapter that was leaked); the cribbing of the opening line of Casino Royale is naff (what next? “There are moments of great luxury in the life of a thirteen-year-old snotbag”?) and although it does suggest that Chigs can recognise potential when he steals it, it’s the only moment when he does the practically impossible and out-Bensons Benson, and in that same opening chapter a teacher “reminding Bond of King George” one of the few (and this one, clumsy) references to time and place. Indeed, there are few elements to date the book as being set in the 1930s–not wise to alienate the apparent target audience–but some of the dialogue seems most unlikely coming from modern Etonians, never mind those of seventy years ago. One also can’t help escaping the feeling that the villain did shoot his son in the initial draft; somehow that would have been a more immediately satisfying end to that father-son relationship.
Ultimately, the major weakness is in the attempts to tie it into the “Bond universe”. Why bother? It’s better without it.
If the aim is to introduce a new readership to James Bond, it’s a pointless exercise because this character is not James Bond and given that there are moments of ickiness equal to “James Bond”, why the target audience should start on this and not Casino Royale is a bit of a mystery. The enterprise comes across as a needless cash-in on two success–James Bond and Harry Potter–and that’s a bit of a shame because divest it of its proclaimed connection to the Fleming adult and it’s a mighty good read.
In short, despite the hilarious (and slightly demeaning) juxtaposition of the blurb: “Ian Fleming first wrote about James Bond over fifty years ago. He was uniquely placed to chronicle Bond’s secret-service career–he was himself involved at a high level in intelligence-gathering operations in World War II” against “Charlie Higson is a well-know writer of screenplays and adult thriller novels, as well as a performer and co-creator of The Fast Show”, what SilverFin–against considerable odds–turns out to be is the best spin-off Bond we’ve had for some time, but it would be better and more welcome were it not one. In even shorter, “no, but yeah”.
And if Chigs is a writer of adult thriller novels, hasn’t someone at IFP missed a trick here? Time to rethink that contract…
Jacques Stewart read the UK Edition of SilverFin.
Return to CBn Reviews Young Bond #1: SilverFin