Raymond Benson has once more taken the screenplay of the latest James Bond film, written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, and turned it into an explosive novel. This review will be critiquing Die Another Day as a James Bond novel.
As the novel opens, we find Bond surfing onto Pukch’ong Beach where he will pose as a diamond smuggler set to meet with the North Korean Colonel Moon, a Communist hardliner. Moon is onto Bond and an explosive chase ensues involving hovercraft, which ends with Moon presumed dead, Zao, Colonel Moon’s principal henchman, disfigured, and Bond apprehended by the General Moon, Colonel Moon’s father. Bond is held and tortured by the North Koreans for over the next fourteen months until he is released into South Korea as part of an exchange for Zao. M visits Bond at a military hospital where he is informed that he is “no longer of any use”. Bond of course suspects the possibility of a traitor, someone who could have tipped off Colonel Moon. Bond quickly makes his escape from the hospital and sets off to find the traitor, a trail that reveals a nefarious plot to topple the West.
What will be good news for many Bond fans is that Die Another Day is a return to the over the top Bond and Beyond stories of the sixties and seventies while maintaining a fresh and modern tone to it, which is what has been missing from the stories of Bond of late. Perhaps it becomes a little too unreal at times, especially the scenes involving Bond’s Aston Martin Vanquish. The car, called the Vanish by Q, has the ability to turn invisible to the naked eye. Bond later makes use of the car’s passenger ejector seat to get the Vanquish back on its wheels after it has landed up side down and a rocket is closing in on him. Bond proceeds to use the spikes in the tires to drive up a wall at the Ice Palace. Not to mention the part involving Bond and Jinx flying on rockets (which the NSA, who deals mainly with cryptology and ciphering, have for some reason) or the ice dragster sequences. One must also suspend belief in that Colonel Moon, in a period of fourteen months, just barely over a year, manages to become completely transformed/altered to the white Gustav Graves, and build up his identity as something of a celebrity among the public, enough so to get knighted, as well in that short time period construct a massive satellite weapon and get it into space. In this reviewer’s opinion it would have been wiser to keep Graves and Moon as separate people and make them allies. Even with the chapter Benson includes revealing how this occurred, it doesn’t seem that much more believable. And speaking of Moon, through much of the novel he is presumed dead, even by his father, General Moon. Surely shortly after the events of the beginning of the novel, General Moon would have sent his men out to look for his son and they would find only a smashed hovercraft and no body. I also personally found the virtual reality training to seem a little out there and a little too much like something from Star Trek. It is absurd that Moneypenny would make use of the technology to live out some fantasy involving Bond, particularly when the world is on the brink of war, and since she was in there at the same time Bond and Jinx are off fighting Graves, she would have no way of knowing if he even survived or not.
The novel is not overflowing with action, which is a good thing and a fear I had when I began reading. There actually are not many separate action scenes, only the opening, always expected to contain action, and a fight in Cuba, then one rather long one that occurs a little after halfway through, actually lasting four whole chapters, and of course the climax. The story also contains a well-crafted fencing duel between Bond and Graves at the Blades club that Benson vividly describes. It is a true highlight of the novel.
The novel is filled with a number of “winks and nods” and perhaps goes a little overboard with them, going as far to as include a scene where Jinx is tied down with a laser beam moving between her legs. A white, diamond collared cat even makes an appearance leaving one to wonder if this is just another wink and nod or a hint of something to come (though I honestly can’t imagine how Blofeld could turn out to have had a hand in this). However others are appropriate, such as the new Q commenting how he learned from his predecessor to ‘never joke about his work.’
The novel presents an interesting cast of characters this time around. The villains are a bizarre lot worthy of Fleming: Gustav Graves who sleeps only an hour a day with the aide of a specialized machine, and Zao comes across as a menacing henchman, which his altered appearance surely contributes to, as well as a minor henchman aptly named Mr. Kil. The girls are mysterious and exotic: Jinx and under cover MI6 agent Miranda Frost, both of which have their own surprises for Bond. New allies of Bond turn up: Raoul, the likeable cigar maker who aides Bond in Cuba, and the NSA Chief Falco. The regular characters are back as well. The Q scene is wonderfully written. M is back as her regular cool self, particularly cruel at times, and Robinson once more shows up. It seems like very little is done to actually develop or flesh out most of these characters in any way, even with the brief histories Benson has provided to Zao and Moon/Graves.
Benson takes us through the story with a distinct narrative flare. He has obviously done some research to provide brief histories and descriptions of the locations used to give a better visual image. He has included a particularly well written chapter when Bond is a prisoner in North Korea and describes how Bond mentally makes it through the torture, then briefly recaps Bond’s life, from his childhood to his days in the Royal Navy to how he became a Double-O and made his first kill, and goes on to have Bond recalling his past friends, foes, and women.
Overall, as a James Bond novel written by Raymond Benson, it came across as being pretty average. Of course Benson’s writing won’t be up to par with that of his original novels, but I still found the story to be nothing above average and offer nothing to terribly exciting. The first half was great and very Flemingesque, Bond abandoned by M and off on a personal mission (but nothing like Licence To Kill) and putting the clues together. The second half seemed to be lost along the way. I enjoyed Benson’s recent The Man With The Red Tattoo a considerable degree more, his stronger writing being much more evident, as well as plot wise. I got the impression that this had the potential to be a good Bond story had a few changes been made to some areas and a little more thought or effort had gone into it. On a scale of one to ten, it lands on an even six.