The Danger Society - Blood Fever review

"You fascinate me, James Bond. You have the mark of death upon you. I can see it. Seven is also the number of death. I see you and I see the number seven and I see the figure of death. Death will walk by your side through your life..."
 Blood Fever is the second in the series of Young James Bond novels by Charlie Higson and was released in 2006. I approached these books with an ever so slightly sniffy air as many of the post-Fleming Bond literary efforts have been fairly tedious and you expect these to be rather juvenile and somewhat in hock to Harry Potter given the target readership but they are actually good reads. In fact, I think in many ways Higson conveys a better understanding of the world of James Bond than John Gardner and Raymond Benson. If they were to ever try another series involving the adult Bond they could probably do a lot worse than let Higson have a crack at it.
The first Young Bond novel SilverFin was a solid start to the series with capers in the Highlands of Scotland but this book is more exotic and has a more exciting story. Now that he has set up the basics of this new series, Higson has more room to move and seems to enjoy himself a lot here with a much greater sense of adventure and more action. There is a very big set-piece in the novel that wouldn't be out of place in an old James Bond film. The Young Bond books are set in the timeline depicted by the original Ian Fleming novels written in the 1950s. So these Young Bond novels are therefore set in the 1930s. The period atmosphere is enjoyable and certainly more charming than John Gardner trying to present Fleming's Bond in the 1980s driving a Saab.
In Blood Fever, James Bond (described as unusually tall with black hair - Barbara Broccoli please possibly try and take note of that Bondian description when you select the next actor, not that I'll hold my breath) is thirteen and a pupil at Eton where he is now starting to settle in after an uncertain start to life at this snooty establishment. Bond is now a member of a group of thrill seekers there known as The Danger Society but a mad scramble back to his room to avoid the society being detected leads him to a strange room with an eerie painting. He overhears people speaking in Latin. It appears there is another more sinister secret society operating from the school. Gasp. As his Aunt is going to be away for a while and can't look after him (lest we forget Bond is an orphan and has no parents), the embryonic secret agent tags along on the school trip to Sicily (sadly, I don't remember my working class school ever taking us to Sicily) where he has been given permission to visit his cousin Victor Delacroix. However, once in foreign climes, danger and adventure soon finds our young hero. He is poisoned and becomes embroiled in the nefarious schemes of Count Ugo Carnifex, a man who employs pirates and has a very grand scheme indeed up his sleeve.
I like the way here that Higson wastes as little time as possible in getting straight into the intrigue and adventure and transplanting the action away from Eton (which however hard you try is always going to be somewhat twee and remote to the vast majority of modern readers). It also helps to avoid the shadow of the hugely successful Harry Potter series - which surely must have been one of the major reasons why the Fleming estate commissioned these books in the first place. Nice prologue here by the way involving a pirate attack on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean by Zoltan the Magyar. A feisty young girl named Amy Goodenough is aboard and when the pirates murder her father she throws a knife at Zoltan and is taken prisoner. Amy will of course play a big role in the story later on. This book is a breezier read than SilverFin and rattles along nicely in undemanding fashion. I liked the Mediterranean setting and it gives it a bit of a Colonel Sun aura at times. Formidable villains, gunfights in caves, glittering blue seas.

You get a real sense of progression in the character of James Bond too and Higson is becoming more believable in making us feel that the awkward teenager from SilverFin is slowly beginning to take on some of the characteristics that will lead to him becoming the blunt instrument of the British government in Fleming's novels. Bond is growing confident and stronger. He has a good scrap when forced to take part in a gladiatorial boxing match and enjoys the thrill of the fight. He also enjoys the adrenaline rush of the capers his secret society is involved in. Driving fast cars, jumping off cliffs, sticking their fingers in toasters. Well, maybe not the last one. Fleming's Bond suffered from boredom (Fleming had a particular word for this complaint which I've forgotten at the moment) and it was a vice he hated. He liked to feel alive and so it's perfectly in keeping with the character here the way the young Bond has a fondness for fast cars and cliff diving. The young Bond probably would be something of an athletic daredevil.
I also like the way that the strange dark world that James Bond lives in is already casting shadows. James Bond lives in a world of death and danger and the young Bond gets a foretaste of what is to come over the course of the novel. The villains are rather good fun too and you can't really fault the ultimate scheme they have for lack of ambition. Count Ugo Carnifex even has his own lair and is a complete megalomaniac. I miss megalomania in the world of James Bond. It seems like all the villains are out for revenge now rather than up to anything specific. I'll go for the grand masterplan myself even if it is a bit daft. I don't quite know why some people seem to treat James Bond as if it's very serious. If it was half as serious as some people make out it would never have taken off in the first place because post-War readers had more than enough reality in their lives already thank you very much. They wanted escapism.
This book feels slightly more adult than the first one with a few damns and blasts and you also get a tentative stab at some teen friendly sadism and torture - sadism and torture a beloved staple of Fleming in his novels. Higson comes up with a very clever scene where Bond is tied down in the middle of a mosquito swamp. Blood Fever is a breezy, undemanding and enjoyable caper and I although I liked SilverFin quite a bit this is a more entertaining and ambitious book on the whole. Higson obviously did his research and his sense of location and detail is always very good. Highly recommended for younger readers and curious James Bond fans alike.

- Jake


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