Oct 18, 2007

Book Review: Hurricane Gold

Under a shiny gold cover, Charlie Higson’s third Young Bond novel finds the 14-year-old James Bond far from the safety of Eton, where his adventures usually begin. James is accompanying his aunt Charmian (a Fleming creation mentioned in You Only Live Twice, but fleshed out by Higson to be an anthropologist) on an expedition to Mexico in 1934. A powerful storm forces Charmian to deposit James in the company of two bratty siblings, JJ and Precious Stone (I’m surprised Fleming himself didn’t think of that one!), while she flies off into the jungle with the children’s father, WWI air ace Jack Stone. While James is holed up with the spoiled siblings, a vicious gang of thieves break into their house in the middle of the storm and take Precious and JJ hostage in a Key Largo scenario. And all that happens in just the first few chapters!

Hurricane Gold could be seen as Higson’s homage to Doctor No, with most of the action taking place on the run through the jungle, culminating in a diabolical obstacle course very similar to that of the good doctor. However, it ultimately owes more to Indiana Jones (specifically Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) than to any James Bond book or film. One breathless escape leads directly into another, filling the book with pretty much wall-to-wall action. The plot of Higson’s last Bond novel, Double or Die, was driven by a complex puzzle, a coded message that James and his friends needed to decipher. Clearly, the author wanted to go in the exact opposite direction with his next book, requiring no puzzle-solving–and very little thought whatsoever!–of his young hero, who is whisked along on a breathless thrill ride, primarily driven by external forces. Throughout Hurricane Gold, and in stark contrast to Double or Die, James is required to react far more often than he is to act. That formula makes for a pulse-pounding page turner, as they say, but ultimately a less rewarding read than the previous book.

In one breathtaking sequence, James helps Precious and her little brother escape the storm–and the gang. They try to move inland, away from the ravaged coast, only to be literally thrown backwards by a rising river in another spectacular action scene. In the aftermath of the ensuing flood, they once more run into the gang, which is led by an enigmatic American named Mrs. Glass.

James and Precious are again taken prisoner, again escape (getting separated from third-wheel JJ in the process), and again run into a member of the gang. Eventually they escape from him, only to once more be recaptured. One of Ian Fleming’s more memorable villains once analyzed his recurring run-ins with the adult James Bond thusly: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but a third time it's enemy action.” Auric Goldfinger understood that only so much could be chalked up to coincidence, as did Fleming, who divided the villain’s eponymous book into three sections, appropriately entitled “Happenstance,” “Coincidence” and “Enemy Action.” There’s only so much coincidence a villain–or a reader–will accept. Higson seriously strains credibility this time out by allowing a third and fourth instance of coincidence before James and Precious finally take some not particularly well thought-out action against their enemy. Their action leads them directly into the clutches of another villainous type, known as El Huracán.

We meet El Huracán in the book’s first chapter, wherein we also get our first glimpse of his deadly, critter-filled obstacle course, La Avenida de la Muerte. El Huracán runs a haven for criminals on the run–provided they have lots of loot and are willing to live out the rest of their days on his island paradise. Throughout the book we occasionally cut back to El Huracán and his island, setting up the inevitable confrontation between El Huracán and James Bond, and young James’ equally inevitable ordeal in La Avenida de la Muerte. Unfortunately, since James and Precious are not on a course that will naturally lead them to El Huracán, we also resign ourselves that this meeting will have to be manufactured, and these “teaser” chapters have the unfortunate effect of making all that leads up to that meeting seem a bit like treading water. (Exciting water, nonetheless!)

All of Higson’s other Young Bond novels have had a clear mission for James, even though it’s not one officially assigned to him by a government agency, as in Anthony Horowitz’s rival teen spy series. In SilverFin, James had to discover what happened to his friend Red Kelly’s missing cousin. In Blood Fever, he had to save the captured sister of a fellow Eton student. And in Double or Die, he had to locate and rescue his kidnapped professor. His only goal in Hurricane Gold is survival, for himself and for Precious. Survival is a perfectly good goal for adventure stories, but it somehow doesn’t feel as Bondian.

Among the many threats to that survival, James encounters every imaginable sort of reptile and disgusting insect. These include scorpions, wasps, mosquitoes (with which James has already tangled in Blood Fever) and army ants. The latter provide that particularly gruesome death scene for a baddie that’s become a staple of the series when a column of the unstoppable fiends cut and bite their way through a paralyzed thug. All of the above-mentioned insects provide plot points, but for good measure Higson also throws in botflies, who provide nothing but some extra grossness that the author seems to believe (correctly, I suppose) that his young male readers crave. I suppose if you’re crafting a boys’ adventure story set in the jungle, you need to include the real-life version of the popular urban legend about insects laying eggs in people’s skin for the maggots to later feed on and burrow out of. Don’t make the mistake of reading the botfly chapter while eating lunch, as I did!

Overall, Higson has really embraced that “boys’ own adventure” mantra this time around. Judging from the popularity of the series in England, he seems to know what boys want, but in Hurricane Gold that mentality unfortunately leads the series away from roots that feel Bondian and steadfastly toward the more gross-out elements of serial-inspired adventures like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Despite my criticisms, there is still plenty to like in Hurricane Gold. Once again, Higson manages to slyly sneak plenty of nearly undetectable education into his action, and it’s all fascinating stuff. (Fleming himself, a professional journalist, was a master of this, but he didn’t have to be quite as sly about it as his intended audience–at the time, anyway–wasn’t young boys.) Kids will learn about pre-war geopolitics, Mexican history and jungle zoology. Even though they’re not specifically designed to educate, like The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the Young Bond adventures offer far more information than a lot of Young Adult literature.

Readers are also treated to another cavalcade of memorable characters. Even though James’ stable of Eton friends (who we just got to know a lot better in the last book) sit this one out, he encounters a number of memorable allies and enemies. American gangsters Strabo, Whatzat and Manny the Girl are all well-drawn antagonists, and worthy predecessors (or successors, depending on how you look at it) to Fleming’s many gangster types, like Shady Tree, Whisper, Slugsy and Horror. (Fleming always seemed fascinated with eccentric American gangsters.) There’s a Japanese semi-villain named Sakata (in a nice tribute to the Oddjob actor) who teaches James some of his first lessons in hand-to-hand combat, and a proto-Marc-Ange Draco/Kerim Bey figure who straddles the line between good and evil, and makes young James a tempting offer at a very different life than the one he goes on to lead. Finally, Precious Stone is a wonderful creation. Whereas all the other Young Bond Girls have been very (almost anachronistically) capable, self-sufficient, even tomboyish lasses, Precious is a very girly girl. She starts out a lot like Temple of Doom’s Willie Scott, but actually undergoes a more believable transformation over the course of the book, not only growing as a person, but becoming a more likable character.

Hurricane Gold may be Charlie Higson’s weakest entry so far (Blood Fever is his best), but it’s still a fast-paced, action-packed adventure, and certainly not an embarrassment to the James Bond brand. Even at its weakest, the Young Bond series is still first rate YA fiction, and first-rate James Bond. All of Higson’s books so far have managed to rank among the very best of the 007 continuation novels, and even if its target audience is children, I can’t recommend the series highly enough for adult Bond fans.

1 comment:

zencat said...

Top notch review, Tanner.