May 25, 2010

Book Review: By Royal Command By Charlie Higson

While I reviewed the exterior of the latest Young Bond book when it came out in England over a year ago, I never got around then to reviewing the actual contents–which some people claim are the best part of a book!  (That didn't stop me, however, from listing it on my year-end Best Of list in 2008.) Since By Royal Command was finally released in America last week (along with hardcover and paperback editions of the SilverFin graphic novel), now seems like an appropriate time to finally review it.

Charlie Higson concludes his initial cycle of Young Bond novels with a fantastic, exciting Boy’s Own-style adventure. By Royal Command blends together all of the elements the series is known for, then adds that final James Bond ingredient that’s been (rightly) absent from the previous books: spying. This is the culmination of all of the books so far, and pays off many things set up in the earlier novels. I don’t mean plot points (though there are a few that come back to haunt James); I mean themes. We’ve watched the boy James Bond grow throughout the first four books, and now he gets to use everything he’s learned over their course. Here we see him expertly navigate the peculiarities of public school life so alien to him in SilverFin, cope once more with the sort of treachery he first encountered in Blood Fever, and put to use both his mystery-solving skills honed in Double or Die and the boy-versus-nature survival techniques demanded of him in Hurricane Gold. On top of all that, James is plunged for the first time into what Higson calls “the shadow war,” that Great Game of pre-war European espionage.

It was a wise move to hold off on any real involvement with MI6 until Book 5. In SilverFin, James Bond was a boy like any other. He wasn’t surreptitiously trained, like Alex Rider, in the arts of spying; it would have been downright silly to involve him in any sort of official missions. But over the course of Higson’s first four novels, James Bond has earned his future; he’s at last ready to handle some of the demands of international espionage.

Higson delivers the basics of spying in a conversational, easy-to-follow manner. He’s explaining it to kids, but as usual with his writing, even adults won’t feel like they’re being talked down to. Chances are that any adult Bond fan has a pretty good idea of what he’s talking about already (how cells operate, etc.), but it’s very easy to bear with Higson, as his writing style is so brisk and easygoing. He’s never didactic, and he assumes a basic intelligence and a certain level of education of his youthful readers, which is very refreshing. So often Young Adult books, even adult books, and most especially movies (of the Hollywood blockbuster variety) talk down to their audiences. Not so with Charlie Higson, and that’s the secret to these books’ overwhelming success (in England, anyway; hopefully the U.S. will follow): he writes for kids as if they’re adults. Since Ian Fleming wrote for adults as if they were kids (not that he condescended to them or blunted his sometimes very adult themes, but he awakened the same sense of adventure in his readers typically embodied by children’s literature), it’s not surprising that reading the Young Bond books now, as an adult, gives me the exact same rush I got as a kid curled up under my covers at summer camp with a flashlight and a Signet paperback of an Ian Fleming novel.

By Royal Command starts off with a moody spy beginning good enough to satisfy any seasoned fan of the genre. A Russian spymaster enters an overstuffed bookshop in Lisbon, and confronts an agent, resulting in a fatal shooting. It’s a good set-up and a good setting; we’re off to a good start. From there we join our hero on a train bound for the Alps; he’s on his way to join up with an Eton-sponsored school ski trip attended by some other familiar characters from the series. On the train, Young Bond encounters some young Nazis (some Hitler Youth) and bests them at both cards and combat. One of them turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic, though, establishing that not all Germans are bad. I know that sounds simplistic, but actually it’s anything but. Many novels aimed at a young audience settle for an easy black and white view of the world; Higson’s is more textured and more honest. James’ train is bound for the Alpine resort village of Kitzbühel, where he will encounter plenty more good Germans–and good Austrians, including one who helps shape his life.

By Royal Command fills in some blanks that I’ve been anticipating since the Young Bond series began. One of the few glimpses Fleming ever offered of James Bond’s childhood (in the short story “Octopussy”) was his experience learning to ski from Hannes Oberhauser, so I’ve been waiting to meet Herr Oberhauser ever since SilverFin was announced. And here he is. It’s not quite what I’d imagined, but it is still rewarding to witness James’ interactions with one of his earliest mentors. However, since Higson’s Young Bond has always been such an independent character, it’s not surprising that he leaves this adult figure behind and gets into most of his scrapes on his own while in Kitzbühel.

Higson seems really big on telling stories of James Bond against the elements. In Hurricane Gold, it was jungle; this time it’s snow, as petty schoolboy squabbles leave James and his rival trapped atop the mountain after it's closed as a stormfront closes in. The problem with the lengthy ensuing survival course down the mountain is that there is no human antagonist. For me, James Bond works much better in stories of man (or boy) vs. man than stories of man vs. nature. But that’s personal preference. There’s no denying that Higson manages to make the latter quite exciting.

By Royal Command is divided into three parts, and follows a very Harry Potter-like formula: the boy hero has a lengthy adventure before getting to the familiar school setting, and then, once he gets there, time passes. This story unfolds across a whole school term, unlike some of the others which have been relegated to one vacation or even a three day period, as was the case in Double or Die. Part I takes place entirely in the Alps. After his survivalist adventure, James must remain behind to sufficiently recover in the care of Oberhauser and his family. Some of that recovery takes place at a hospital, where he stumbles upon the Thunderball movie plotline of two bandaged plastic surgery patients, presumably about to switch places. This is all intriguing, but James doesn’t really know what to make of it and neither do we, so while we’ve had some thrilling action sequences, there isn’t really enough plot happening yet by the time we finally get to Eton about 100 pages in. James has spent the majority of Part I being acted upon (by nature and by mysterious forces he doesn’t yet understand) rather than acting.

Part II, then, quickly makes up for that; this is the meat of the story. The plot that unfolds in this section involves not only more fascinating depictions of not-always-pleasant everyday life at Eton in that era (James takes an If-like beating from the bullying Head Boy that foreshadows his torment in Casino Royale... only on the other side of his anatomy, if you know what I mean), but also spies, Communists (including a returning antagonist from earlier in the series), historical figures (James’ first encounter with the future Majesty on whose Secret Service he later serves) and the whiff of Royal scandal. On top of all that, there’s that other major youthful event alluded to by Fleming, the trouble with the boys’ maid that we all know ultimately results in James’ expulsion from Eton. The maid in question is the beautiful Roan Power, an alluring slightly older woman who captivates Young Bond in ways that Fleming almost certainly never imagined or intended. In fact, she just might be a Communist agent. Roan exposes a side of James we haven’t seen in any of Higson’s previous novels, and it’s fascinating (though a little bit weird ) to witness James Bond at an awkward age, actually growing up!

Each of the three sections seems sort of self-contained. Part III, therefore, doesn’t feel quite wholly connected to the rest, but it sure is exciting! Part III thrusts James Bond into a John Buchan-type spy chase, and readers get to see the boy who will one day become the consummate professional in his field in an altogether different sub-genre of spy fiction: the innocent abroad, an amateur caught up in a conspiracy he doesn’t fully comprehend. Added onto this scenario, we get descriptions far more gruesome than anything Ian Fleming ever dreamed up when James has to retrieve a revolver from a rotting corpse, a fight with a hulking henchman that could have come right out of a Bond movie (specifically, Sean Connery’s fight with Pat Roach in Never Say Never Again comes to mind), a large scale gun battle involving hordes of British and Russian secret agents and the return of another villain from James’ past... with an Alpine castle lair. Of all of Higson’s books, By Royal Command is probably the most rollicking Boy’s Own adventure, and a worthy finale for the series–or at least the first cycle of the series, if Higson can be lured back for another round.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, though, I did have some problems with the book–most having to do with its final chapters. Therefore, I recommend not reading any further if you haven’t yet read By Royal Command, but intend to. I generally try to avoid venturing into this sort of SPOILER territory in my reviews, but here it’s necessary in order to contextualize the novel in the larger scope of James Bond stories. So you’ve been warned; proceed from here at your own risk

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Unsurprisingly, James’ budding romance with the unwitting Communist agent Roan ends in tragedy. But what kind of tragedy? Higson seems to be setting things up in a way that would force James Bond to sell her out when his government asks him to entrap her. I liked where this was heading, and thought it was a stroke of genius to make Bond the betrayer for once, instead of the betrayed. It would be the opposite of the scenario in Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, in which Bond is betrayed by Vesper, a woman he loves. However, that setup turns out to be a red herring, and instead James does end up in the position of the betrayed once more... or for the very first time, I supposed. Not only that, but she ends up dying as well, and Young Bond loses the first of many doomed loves in his life. It’s a situation which older Bond fans (but perhaps not the young ones) have seen many times before: twice in Fleming (Casino Royale and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), twice again in Gardner (Death Is Forever and SeaFire) and revisited again in The Moneypenny Diaries, which take place in the aftermath of OHMSS. Therefore, Roan’s death is problematic. Having James Bond love and lose at so early an age in some ways diminishes the impact on him of Vesper’s death years later. After having his heart broken by Roan and Vesper, it’s a wonder poor Tracy ever had a chance! Then again, Higson does manage to engineer things so as to put Bond in the position (vis a vis women) that he’s in when he meets Vesper, to show us why he’s put up those walls she manages to break down–or the “armor,” as they say in the movie version. So it does work. I’m just a nitpicker. But I had to mention this potential problem. Continuity issues aside, however, By Royal Command is an excellent entry in and a fitting conclusion to the adventures of Young Bond, clearly laying a path to a future we’re all very familiar with...

Investigate past coverage of Young Bond on the Double O Section:


Cover image courtesy of Young Bond Dossier.

3 comments:

zencat said...

Good review!

Christopher Mills said...

Skipped most of the review because I only just picked up my copy tonight. Looking forward to reading it later this week... I love the series and am eager to dive in to the last installment.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Zencat! Did you like it, Christopher?