Friday, January 22, 2010

Bond, Young James Bond: Silverfin, by Charlie Higson

Origin stories just seem to capture our imaginations, don't they? Who doesn't want to see the very moment when someone starts on the road to awesomeness, when Peter Parker is bitten by that radioactive spider, when Indiana Jones gets that famous hat, when Luke Skywalker decides he'll be a Jedi Knight like his father? We love to see those moments when someone takes that first step on the path to greatness.

The trouble with origin stories is that there are many more steps after that, boring ones while we learn our gifts, find our path, take false turns, and blunder into who we are. Nobody struck Abraham Lincoln with lightning to give him his great moral sense, and Mozart's father all but abused him to cultivate that "inborn" talent for music. George Patton didn't crawl from the womb with his pearl-handled revolvers, and Stephen King's first story sure wasn't "The Body." Real people grow slowly, and--though it isn't as quick--that growth can be just as fun to watch as a sudden transformation.

And so it is with the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson, starting with the novel Silverfin.

In this novel, we're introduced to a teenaged James Bond starting school at Eton. There, we see the beginnings of his life of adventure: a boyish curiosity, a strength of moral character, an interest in other cultures, a cleverness for escaping trouble he can't fight, a determination to win. In this book, he drives his first Aston Martin (and not immediately well, I might add). He learns about his uncle's brief career as a spy and wonders if that might be something he might try one day. He foils his first conspiracy to change the politics of the world, too--sneaking into a fortified castle and swimming through a loch infested with man-eating eels.

Oh, and he introduces himself to a schoolmaster as, "Bond. James Bond."

It's worth saying that there has always been a large gap between the written James Bond and the one we've seen on the screen: Ian Fleming's excellent novels and stories are far more intelligent than the corny, heavy-handed movies made from the Sixties to the Nineties about his character. These books continue the written tradition of a thoughtful James Bond, someone more likely to outplay an enemy at cards than punch him in the face.

Higson, too, resists the temptation to clobber us over the head with James's future. Here, he's showing Bond's first steps. This is James Bond without his guns, without his fists, without his gadgets, without his women, without his shaken martinis...and he's all the more awesome with just his brains and determination. James Bond has to solve the mystery of SilverFin without the British government at his back, without any real legal authority. He makes new friends to help him, and he keeps his wits when the rest of us might well run slinking away.

This is the book when James Bond starts--ever slowly, ever subtly--becoming James Bond. It's fun to watch; it helps us all to remember during our worst days that James Bond was a kid once, too. He became great slowly, just like we can.


Jen Robinson said...

Thanks for highlighting this series, Will. I've enjoyed the Young Bond books. They're pretty good on audio, too.

Jan von Harz said...

I was in eighth grade when I first read Ian Fleming (forty-something years ago)and your review of Silverfin has intrigued me. I really think I would like this book, and I believe so would my students. This is going on my must read list now thanks.

Will Ludwigsen said...

Jen: Hmmm...I hadn't thought to listen to these on audio, but I'll have to check them out; I'll bet they lend well to the format!

Jan: At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I'm pretty sure this is a book you would have loved in the eighth grade--a James Bond you could identify with! I was reading Ian Fleming around then, too.