Fans of Ian Fleming’s literary James Bond may be hesitant to delve into the Young Bond series, but allow me to do my best to dissuade anyone from dismissing this brilliant and cleverly constructed YA series. Whatever fears you may have about Young Bond should be relinquished after reading what I have to say about this series and dare I say I think many of you who have yet to check this thrilling series out will find that once you begin this series, it’s very difficult to stop.
I know because that’s what happened to me.
In 2005 when Ian Fleming Publications released the 1st Young Bond book, SILVERFIN, many fans saw it as a cynical cash grab. Harry Potter had become an immensely successful series and some publishers were eager to follow suit by publishing their own original YA novels even if they had never been inclined to publish within that genre beforehand. The idea that the James Bond franchise could adapt its iconic character to fit into the YA genre seemed like a bit of a stretch. After all, Ian Fleming himself had once remarked that his books were for “warm blooded heterosexual adults.” Such an exclusionary point of view was common ground for many Bond fans and even today there are many within the Bond fandom resistant to any changes to their beloved character.
To anyone out there unsure about whether or not to embark upon a journey with the Young Bond series of books, I have only two words for you: Charlie Higson.
Ian Fleming Publication’s inspired choice for Charlie Higson to write the first 5 Young Bond novels resulted in books that were rooted in Fleming’s conception of the characters. For starters, these books serve as prequels to Fleming’s literary character, which means that they take place in the 1930s with Bond starting the series at around age 13 in 1933 just as he’s about embark on his academic career at Eton College. Higson imbued his Young Bond novels not just with an accurate and distinct sense of the historical timeframe of their setting; he also looked to Ian Fleming’s own life for inspiration trying to see what might have inspired Fleming as a young man growing up in the era in between World War I and World War II. There’s a sense throughout these books that Higson researched a great deal not only about the events of the time but also some of the prevailing attitudes of the period and many of the subtle things that a young man growing up the way we are meant to think Bond grew up would have encountered.
What little we do know about Bond’s youth is told to us in the form of an ultimately premature obituary in Fleming’s penultimate Bond novel, You Only Live Twice. M, believing that Bond had perished in his mission to Japan wrote the following epitaph for The Times regarding his youth:
“When he was eleven years of age, both of his parents were killed in a climbing accident in the Aiguilles Rogues above Chamonix, and the youth came under the guardianship of an aunt, since deceased, Miss Charmian Bond, and went to live with her at the quaintly-named hamlet of Pett Bottom near Canterbury in Kent. . . . his aunt, who must have been a most erudite and accomplished lady, completed his education for an English public school, and, at the age of twelve or thereabouts, he passed satisfactorily into Eton, for which College he had been entered at birth by his father.” (from Fleming’s You Only Live Twice).
M. goes on to describe Bond’s career at Eton as a being cut short due to Bond’s aunt having been asked to remove Bond after some “alleged incident with a maid.” Aside from this, there is very little else definitively known about Bond as a young man. One might be inclined to argue that Bond’s youth would be better left as a mystery to fans of the literary character, and if anyone other than Charlie Higson had written these books I might be inclined to agree. It’s not just that Charlie Higson managed to compose new thrilling adventures for Young Bond to have embarked upon prior to becoming an adult, it’s that he manages to emulate Fleming throughout the series both stylistically with how he’s written these stories utilizing language reminiscent of Ian Fleming and also how much he truly understands James Bond as a character for the young man that he is and the man that we all know Bond will ultimately become. There’s plenty here for literary Bond fans to sink their teeth into. Take for instance our introduction to young James in SilverFin as he takes in his arrival at Eton College:
“The smell and noise and confusion of a hallway full of schoolboys can be quite awful at twenty past seven in the morning.”
That should ring very familiar with Bond fans who might remember the first line of Casino Royale:
“The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.”
Higson weaves an intricate web throughout the series with hints and stylistic foreshadowing of the language and scenarios reminiscent of the Fleming books. The intention of course is twofold. Young readers in the demographic for this book may not be ready for the “sex, sadism, and snobbery” of the Fleming books so these stories serve as a prelude for them so that perhaps once they are ready to dive into Fleming they can do so with some distinct knowledge of what James Bond is like as a literary character. The other purpose these books serve is for adult fans who have read all the Fleming novels, and to those fans, these brilliant books offer us the wonderful reward of reconnecting with the character in his most formative years prior to becoming the man Fleming envisioned.
The 1st book deals with Bond becoming accustomed to life at Eton with its rigid traditions and rules that all the boys must follow. At the time, corporal punishment in schools was not abhorred as a general practice so Bond has to navigate a fine line to avoid “thrashings.” There are strict teachers and cruel bullies, but Bond manages to make some good friends that will feature a great deal throughout the series while also forming a good relationship with his classics mentor and tutor, Professor Merriot. It’s Prof. Merriot who encourages Bond to participate an athletic competition that suspiciously seems to have been designed in such a way as to favor the son of the sponsor of the competition, the dubious Lord Hellebore.
While the first half of the book describes what life must have been like for boys at Eton in the 1930s, the 2nd half sees Bond return to Scotland on a break. He becomes good friends with a boy on the train who happens to be looking into the mysterious disappearance of his cousin. All the while we’re also treated to glimpses of how Bond learned of the tragedy of his parents’ deaths as well as how he formed a close relationship with his Aunt Charmian and his Uncle Max, who had been a spy in World War I. Uncle Max’s story will indeed leave a profound influence on James. It’s Uncle Max who actually teaches James how to drive and not just with any car but with a Bamford and Martin, the automobile manufacturer’s precursor to what would ultimately become the Aston Martin. Vehicles in the 1930s were not as easy to drive as they are today. Higson takes us through many of the intricate details as Bond learns a skill that will obviously come very much in handy for him later in life.
SilverFin ultimately takes us into what might be described as Bond’s first dangerous mission. It involves Bond looking into the disappearance of a local boy near Hellebore castle. While there are some fantastical elements to this adventure in the plot, it never fails to be engaging and brilliantly entertaining. It never strays very far from what Fleming might have done himself if he had been inclined to tackle this area of Bond’s life. I think most Bond fans will be very pleased reading SilverFin. It’s just an absolute delight to find so much careful attention paid to Bond’s personal history while also setting these events during an actual historical time and place. It’s this 1st book that will draw you into this series while each subsequent book explores new thrilling settings and facets to Bond as a character.
Lest anyone think that the series unfolds as some sort of Harry Potter clone, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Most adventures take place away from Eton and each books takes place shortly after the events of the preceding adventure forcing the reader wonder if Young James might be tired from all this danger as each adventure seems to test him to his very limits both physically and mentally. On the contrary, we learn that James thrives on danger and taking risks.
The 2nd book, BLOOD FEVER, sees him join a secret Danger Society at Eton with some fellow classmates shortly before he embarks on a school trip to Sardinia. After learning about the Nuraghe de Santu Antine, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy facing off against pirates, gypsies, and a certain Count Uggo who wants to restore the Roman Empire and fashion himself after Julius Ceasar. He helps rescue the sister of a classmate coincidently named Amy Goodenough and helps thwart the villain’s plans after enduring a uniquely Bondian torture scene. A lot of this has Ian Fleming written all over it. Torture scenes where the villain takes Bond to the brink of death only to have Bond narrowly escape remains a thrilling trope of the Bond franchise and here Higson has his villain force one of nature’s deadliest animals upon James: The Mosquito. If that sounds like a joke to you it isn’t. Count Uggo makes sure to spray James with perfume and strap him down amidst a horde of mosquitos denying James the ability to swat them away. This sequence had me at the edge of my seat and I think it will do the same for most readers.
Book 3, DOUBLE OR DIE, finds Bond back at Eton helping his schoolmate investigate the disappearance of a teacher by deciphering a clues in the form of codes and ciphers. This serves as a precursor to the Intelligence work that would eventually be done during World War II at Bletchley Park to crack ENIGMA. In fact the book features a cameo from Alan Turing himself. This book ranks as one of my favorites in the series. It was fun learning about various codebreaking methods, puzzles, and brain teasers. Once again, there’s a real threat of danger present as the abductors of the Eton teacher are after something that could prove to be a decisive advantage for whoever gets hold of it. The story takes place around Christmas time and we also get an intimate look into Bond’s psyche and how losing his parents might have set him on a thrill seeking path. Higson writes, “Perhaps he’d got involved in this crazy adventure to take his mind off the emptiness he always felt at this time of year when the dark days deepened his sense of loss.” This book not only gives us a thrilling adventure with many twists and turns, it also drives at the heart of who Bond is at this stage of his life before becoming a man.
Book 4, HURRICANE GOLD, takes place in Mexico where Bond finds himself in a struggle to protect a young girl and her younger brother after a home invasion. The kidnappers are after secret naval documents which would prove disastrous if they were to get into the wrong hands. This is more of a straight forward rescue adventure with some memorable twists and turns along the way. There are some fascinating back stories about the gang of kidnappers that I think many readers would enjoy. The main thrill of this book, however, is the villain’s deadly obstacle course called La Avenida de Muerte with each stage in the course set up as a tribute to various Mayan gods. There are shades of Fleming’s Dr. No and Live and Let Die present throughout this book, and while it may not be my favorite in the series there’s enough here to satisfy any fan of the literary Bond.
After Book 4, it’s in a reader’s best interest to track down Higson’s DANGER SOCIETY: THE YOUNG BOND DOSSIER, which serves as a compendium, companion, and guide to the entire series. More importantly, it features an exclusive short story taking place shortly after the events of Hurricane Gold called “A Hard Man to Kill.” This story features the introduction of a young Rene Mathis as Bond embarks on his return voyage to Europe only with a deadly criminal aboard with conspirators who will stop at nothing to make sure their boss is set free. The story is brilliantly crafted and a must read for anyone who is a fan of the series.The rest of the book is also a helpful companion into the world Higson created for Young Bond with plenty of illustrations, diagrams, a letter from school to Aunt Charmian, and a breakdown of all the memorable characters, cars, locations, and just about anything you might have enjoyed from the previous books right at your fingertips.
Higson’s final book in the series BY ROYAL COMMAND supplies us with a true spy thriller, and I regard this book to be his masterpiece. This is the book that finally tells the story about the alleged incident with the maid. It’s the story that I had been dying to get to since starting the series and it most certainly exceeded my expectations as to what could have been done with that nugget of information about Bond’s young life.
The maid in question is able to penetrate deeply into Bond’s heart with an appeal that foreshadows the kind of fascination Bond will eventually have with Vesper. Bond falls head over heels for this young woman only slightly older than the boy she was entrusted to work for. We know from the very beginning that she must be dangerous and the book slowly reveals why. I think that for the first time, however, James meets a woman who truly understands him.
She tells him, “You’re a blunt object, aren’t you, darling? Oh, I’m not saying you haven’t any hidden depth. Because I know there’s a lot going on beyond that cool surface of yours. You’re a lot more grown-up and interesting than most boys your age. But you’d still rather take on the world with your fists than with your brain, or with your heart. You’ve got to learn to use your heart, because, if you don’t, it’ll become weak. And a weak heart is easily broken. If someone wants to hurt you badly they’ll aim their arrows at that heart of yours.”
In interviews, Fleming would often refer to Bond as a “blunt instrument,” and it’s incredibly satisfying to read as Higson gets to the core of Bond’s character. Along with this intimate complex exploration of James, Higson gives us a masterfully told spy thriller. James gets his first full taste of what his future life as a spy will be like including all the players involved in this “shadow war,” a term that accurately describes the conflict that will eventually encompass his entire life. During this novel, James encounters Hitler Youth, Soviet spies, a communist conspiracy to kill the King in addition to having his own personal induction into the British Secret Service. Higson weaves an intricately complicated yet fascinating world for young Bond to navigate and all of it is very well-researched and very relevant to the history of the time period of this story.
After By Royal Command, Charlie Higson left the Young Bond series to pursue other projects namely his original YA series The Enemy. Steve Cole took on the mantle as the new Young Bond writer resulting in a different vibe and tone from the books written by Higson. Steve Cole’s first book, SHOOT TO KILL, places James in LA on a school trip for a temporary school he was placed in after Eton before moving on to Fettes. Much of the beginning of Shoot to Kill reads a lot like a noir or a pulp magazine hard boiled story inspired from its setting. I find that I actually enjoyed this approach because it’s inspired by a genre that I love to read and Fleming himself was a fan of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
In a way, Fleming shared a common struggle with these writers for respect from the literary community during his lifetime. Some fans, however, had a negative reaction to this approach and I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but there’s a lot to enjoy about Steve Cole’s take on young Bond. He approaches it a bit differently than Higson had, but I find that his approach generally works despite some very minor flaws. The plot about a troubling film strip and blackmail involving a wealthy studio head contains some first rate thrills and never fails to deliver on action and danger.
I hope I’ve done these wonderful books some kind of justice. After all, as a fan sometimes it’s difficult to convince someone who may be reluctant to give that thing that you enjoy a chance. I could go on and continue to wax poetic about a series that has been rewarding to read as a Bond fan, and maybe it’ll all fall on deaf ears although I’m hoping that it hasn’t. If there’s a chance, however, that my meagre and perhaps inadequate presentation of these books might have sparked a curiosity about Young Bond inside you, please don’t just take my word for it. Go out, find these books, and read them whether you’re a fan who has read all the Fleming books or not. If you like James Bond, you will like these books. You will not be disappointed. They are written with a style, grace, and elegance that I could only hope to aspire to as a writer.
Much of the speculation about the upcoming new Bond film, SPECTRE, revolves around what we might learn about Bond’s origins. I have no doubt the filmmakers will do an incredible job should they decide to dive deeper into this very intriguing aspect of this iconic character’s background. With this Young Bond series, however, we get a vivid depiction of the young man who would eventually become Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
The series is a remarkable achievement and both Charlie Higson and Steve Cole deserve credit for recreating and enlivening the world that Fleming’s Bond occupies in way that both captures our imagination and thrills our senses. Above all things, Ian Fleming’s Bond stories set the standard for the quintessential spy thriller. What better way to honor that tradition than to curl up with a Young Bond book written with careful admiration and respect for Ian Fleming and each successive generation of his readers.
Steve Cole’s first Young Bond book, Shoot To Kill, will be released in paperback on October 22, 2015.
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*Editor’s note: The recommended demographic is between 13-17 year olds, as Bond himself starts this series at age 13.The books are written at a upper grade reading level, who are on the cusp of reading at an adult level but who many not be ready for adult content.