In Brief: Boyhood adventure with some slightly frightening genetic experiments.
Series: Young Bond
Published in: 2005
Age Range: Young Teens
Period: Early 20th C
Setting: Eton School / Scotland
- James Bond is a quiet but sporty 13-year-old, orphaned and living with his Aunt.
- "Red" Kelly is an Eastender who befriends James on the train to Scotland.
- Wilder Lawless is a Scottish girl, capable and outdoor-loving, who helps James & Kelly in Scotland.
- George Hellebore is a few years above James at Eton, a bully and a cheat.
- Lord Hellebore is George's father, a domineering American who owns a castle and most of the land in Scotland near James' uncle and aunt.
James Bond is a new boy at Eton and must learn the ropes quickly, while fending off the bullying tactics of George Hellebore and his cronies. Travelling to Scotland to spend the holidays with his uncle and aunt, he discovers that Lord Hellebore owns a castle nearby. A local lad has gone missing near the castle, “Red” Kelly's cousin, and James is helping Kelly to find his cousin, when they come across the secret Lord Hellebore is hiding.
I have mixed feelings about this, and to some extent about the series of books it starts. If all you're after is an undemanding, albeit uninspired, boy's own adventure, then pick this up. You've got an Eton schoolboy, assisted by a streetwise Cockney and a feisty girl on horseback, investigating the obviously dastardly plan of an arrogant American and his German Scientist sidekick. Their plan involves experimenting on animals and humans to create the perfect soldier. The American's son is at first a bullying coward, cowering from his father, and sneering at everyone else. Later, he's had enough and wants his estranged Mummy, who lives in America.
If you're after a little bit of a coming-of-age story, as the young James Bond grows up, you'll get some satisfaction, too. James has to find his own feet at Eton, discovering his talent for cross-country running. He is taught to drive (an Aston Martin, of course) by his uncle. And he has to come to terms with his uncle's death from lung cancer. He's not exactly running after the girls: the token girl in the story runs to a couple of brief encounters and a friendly kiss.
What disappointed me I think was that it didn't really go any further than that. Had the main character been called something else, it wouldn't really have made any difference. I wasn't expecting the glamorous super-spy to come to life fully-armed and licensed to kill at the age of thirteen, but while you're content for the Bond films to be short on fleshed-out characters and credible plots, because you're really in it for the action and glamour, a book like this has to work a bit harder. It's not terrible, but it's not particularly exciting either. As an aside, I would almost rather that this and the Alex Rider series had swapped roles. Alex Rider does come onto the scene as a trained spy-type and the only personality he shows is the occasional “should I do this?” angst. The young Bond and some of his supporting cast do have a little bit more to them, even if they're let down by a rather plodding storyline.
“Red” Kelly is a fairly two-dimensional cockney stereotype, who accompanies James to Scotland on the flimsiest of pretexts. An American detective is likewise a lightweight, as are Hellebore himself, his German scientist boffin and his cruel-minded Bailiff. George Hellebore has a certain realism, but doesn't show up enough for you to care when he has various misgivings about his domineering father's plans, and wishes for his absent mother.
There are some better filled-out characters. James' Aunt Charmian and Uncle Max come off the page nicely. She is a slightly flamboyant character whose personality lifts her above contemporary concerns about her wearing trousers and driving powerful cars. He is a dying man who transmits to James his enthusiasms for fishing and driving, while warning him off the idea that being a spy is glamorous. Max delicately avoids detailing how as a spy during the First World War he was tortured, but he clearly was, and his eventual escape is anything but exciting: harrowing, rather, and realistic. A form of heroism, certainly, but not of the James Bond variety.
One person who seems shortchanged is the lone girl in the plot, Wilder Lawless. She turns up just two or three times, once as a Deus ex machina to save James from probable death, and then disappears again until a farewell scene. We never find out about her background, although by her speech, with its occasional “ayes” and “ochs” we suppose her to be Scottish, although gentry rather than crofter.
The author deftly sidesteps most issues of responsibility for the characters' actions. The bad guys get their comeuppance at the hands of the animals which were their experimental subjects, and the boys who might be brought to book for setting fire to an illegal genetics laboratory aren't around when the police arrive.
Slightly surprisingly, James Bond, climbing from a tall tree as the branch starts breaking tells himself “it's all in God's hands now”. Later on, swimming for his life through an eel-infested culvert (as you do) he hopes that his “crazy guardian angel” is helping him. Lord Hellebore, in manic mode, tells the boys “you've probably realised that there is no God”, but we're not expected to believe him.
- Spying — glamour vs reality
- Genetic experimentation
He shook himself and stood up. He mustn't give in because then Hellebore would have won. He thought of all he'd been through to get this far: the trek up to the castle with Kelly, crawling along the ditch, hiding in the back of the lorry, crossing the pig pens, climbing the great pine tree, and the mad scramble up the wall... Then being chased through the dark passageways by lgar. How long ago was all that? Was it really just last night? Another wave of tiredness washed over him, and for a moment he wanted with all his heart to sit back down and rest.
Thursday 18th August 2005