The Ice Pirates - By Royal Command reviewed

"Following a treacherous rescue mission high in the freezing Alps, James Bond is preparing for life back at Eton. But James is under surveillance; his every move is being watched. He alone holds the clue to a sinister plot that will bring bloodshed and carnage to his school – and his country. Forced to flee from Eton to Austria, James must leave behind everything he knows, with only a beautiful – and dangerous – girl by his side. Soon he is trapped in a deadly war of secrets and lies, as a nightmare reunion with a bitter enemy plunges him once more into the face of death. Life for James Bond will never be the same again..."
By Royal Command is the fifth and final Young James Bond novel by Charlie Higson and was published in 2008. While these books proved to be very popular with the junior readers they were designed to entice they were regarded at first with some suspicion by James Bond fans who had read the original series of books by Ian Fleming. The concept of presenting Ian Fleming's famous character as a teenager in the 1930s seemed to have a number of pitfalls. James Bond is very much an adult character and so it's difficult to think of him as a child or teenager (Fleming himself had little or no interest in Bond's early days) and the self-contained anachronistic private school setting seemed to run the risk of becoming very Harry Potter. It would have been easy to make these books too disposable, lightweight, derivative and jarringly non-canonical.
Charlie Higson (who I know from The Fast Show of course but I wasn't even aware he wrote novels until SilverFin) therefore deserves credit for the universe he creates here and the way it winds a conceivable path from wide-eyed young schoolboy to hard as nails expense account snob and assassin for the British Secret Service. Although it might have seemed unlikely at times during the start of this series, James Bond is beginning to realise that his destiny has been chosen for him and the awkward youth of SilverFin is well on the way by now to becoming the jaundiced but dashing super spy of legend. Higson uses his own knowledge of the Fleming series to enjoyably plug some gaps in the history of the character and embellish certain incidents that Fleming had only hinted at in passing. We know for example that Fleming's Bond was expelled from Eton for an incident involving a maid but were always kept somewhat fog shrouded about the whole affair. Higson uses this legendary sidenote in Bond's life as a major plot strand for By Royal Command and it's a clever idea. Because this incident is so glossed over in the history of the character, Higson has artistic licence to refashion it for the purposes of his book and has fun weaving an intricate web that not only serves his own book well but also explains why exactly this incident was spoken of so little in the future.
This feels like a much more adult book than the previous entries in this series and is also more ambitious with Higson effectively presenting three different stories in one big volume. I also liked the sense of the real world encroaching more and more in this last Young Bond adventure. The shadow of World War 2 is slowly beginning to loom and innocence is a commodity that will soon be in short supply. The first act is set in the Alps where Bond is on a school ski trip. This is a good section to the book with intrigue, avalanche capers and - most notably - Bond meeting Hans Oberhauser. In Ian Fleming's story Octopussy, James Bond has to investigate the death of Oberhauser and it's very personal for him because he remembers Oberhauser as a mentor in his younger years. "It just happened that Oberhauser was a friend of mine. He taught me to ski before the war, when I was in my teens. He was a wonderful man. He was something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one." Oberhauser doesn't play a huge role in this novel but it's a nice touch by Higson to include him and fun of course to read his take on how they might have met and become friends.
Another nice passage here has Bond encountering some Hitler Youth and fleecing them at cards. It foreshadows the war and is a good little scene. The second part of the novel switches the action back to Eton but Higson of course has a trump card up his sleeve by introducing the infamous maid who gets Bond expelled and spinning this briefly mentioned part of his biography into a major plot that eventually involves spies, communists and a Royal scandal. By the way, Bond is introduced here at one point to a certain Princess Elizabeth. I like the way the real world intrudes on this fictional universe. The last act of By Royal Command veers into Riddle of the Sands/John Buchan territory but is briskly paced with lashings of intrigue and danger. We are back in Austria and while James Bond was a consummate professional as an adult spy here he's not quite all that he would become yet and so needs all of his embryonic wit and steadfastness to navigate a series of events that would tax Tintin at his most dogged or Indiana Jones at his most determined - let alone a teenage James Bond. Higson infuses more of the macabre into this section (great bit where Bond has to retrieve a gun from a dead body) and spins a very readable and inventive end to his series by almost coming full circle and throwing in some characters from previous volumes.
Best of all is the fact that you get an Alpine lair. Very James Bond. Once again Higson also pays tribute to Fleming by structuring his book in the same way - different sections each with their own chapter titles. Fleming's titles were always fun and often very immediate but Higson's quest to be Flemingesque seems to have deserted him in this area and they are a trifle dull and clunky (although I realise some are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek). This is a good end to the series on the whole though and certainly the most ambitious and mature of these novels. I don't think it would be an overstatement, if damning with faint praise given how dreadful many of them have been, to say this is one of the best of the continuation (or in this case prequel) novels published since the death of Fleming. It's a good hefty read too with my paperback copy clocking in at well over 300 pages.

- Jake

c 2013 Alternative 007
james bond alpine