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Young Bond loses his innocence
on 5 September 2008
With By Royal Command Charlie Higson brings the Young Bond series in for a picture perfect landing, touching down cleanly and evenly on every aspect of James Bond's past and future life. Within its own universe, By Royal Command is the equivalent of 2006's Casino Royale or this year's The Dark Knight -- a surprisingly profound, introspective, and ultimately tragic chapter that takes a leap in quality and maturity from all that has come before. At the same time, By Royal Command is a kinder and gentler Young Bond novel that doesn't have nearly the level of gruesome violence that has become a hallmark of the series, and even contains a love story! It's a surprising book in many ways. Of course, all the Young Bond books have been individualistic and, in their own ways, surprises, so By Royal Command fits perfectly into a series that has never repeated itself.
Structurally, By Royal Command is somewhat similar to Devil May Care (the celebrated Centenary adult Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks), particularly in its post-caper third act flight. But By Royal Command has an emotional depth that the adult Bond adventure didn't. There is a real sadness that permeates By Royal Command, a steady drip drip drip of Bond's innocence, of which Bond is all too aware. After the bloody events of the past four books, especially the relentless Hurricane Gold, this James Bond wants nothing more than to live a normal schoolboy's life. He's a 14-year-old with post traumatic stress. But Bond discovers he is fated to be a magnet for danger and death, and his reserves of stamina and strength in such situations have not gone unnoticed by leaders who soon need young men with such reserves. Not only does Bond lose what remained of his innocence in By Royal Command, it's made clear to him that the world will soon lose what remains of its innocence as well. The specter of World War II and the Cold War looms large over this novel and, in the end, Bond is resigned that his will never be a normal life. In time, he will become a number.
So where does By Royal Command stand among the other Young Bonds? For me, it's clearly the best -- which qualifies it as one of the very best James Bond continuation novels, period. For fans who still refuse to read the series based on the concept alone, it'll be hard to justify why they won't at least read By Royal Command, as it depicts a key event established by Fleming (the infamous "maid incident") and IS a spy novel. While it's preferable to have a knowledge of what came before (the book touches on all the past Young Bond novels with several returning characters), By Royal Command can still be read as a stand alone.
While there has been talk of more Young Bond adventures at some point in the future, Charlie makes it clear in his acknowledgments that By Royal Command is the end of a five book cycle started in 2005 with SilverFin.
What a spectacular end it was.