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Licence Renewed (John Gardner's Bond series Book 1) Kindle Edition
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|Length: 270 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
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- Part of the James Bond Boxed Set 5 (5 Book Series)
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In 1981, Ian Fleming's estate decided Bond needed a big literary return. Gardner was a man with as fascinating a background as Fleming: theatre critic, stage magician and WW2 service as a Royal Marines officer specialising in explosives. He'd started writing swinging 60s Bond parodies but moved towards LeCarre-esque Cold War thrillers. If you think Faulks and Deaver were given big publicity, Gardner seemed to be everywhere: articles in The TLS and photoshoots with guns and cars apparently paid off, as the book spent months atop bestseller lists. Did it deserve it?
Score: 8/10. It's solid: think Moonraker or Goldfinger for the 1980s, with Bond insinuating himself into the plans of UK based supervillain Anton Murik. The strong plot (governments held to ransom when terrorists capture Nuclear power plants) stands up well, the execution as terrifyingly plausible as Thunderball. The Saab 900 (replacing the Bentley Mark II Continental) wins you over as a serious driver's car, the gadgets making the battles interesting without being a get-out-of-jail-free. The OTT henchman, Ascot, MI5, plus books on disguise and pickpocketing are very Fleming.
Bond's updating isn't bad: in Gardner's early books he still smokes (bespoke low tar Morelands), while the Dom Perignon '55, Rolex and Sea Island cotton shirt all ring true. Despite claims to the contrary, Bond is portrayed as older (maybe late 40s?) and wiser; less cold but more full of himself; more of a professional spy than a blunt instrument. Gardner confessed later he never really cared for the character but here he takes the trouble to get right the self discipline, breakfast routine, exercise regime, love of particularity and old school manners.
Gardner's a compelling storyteller but he doesn't have Fleming's raconteur voice, so longer descriptive passages can become bogged down in minutiae rather than salient detail. The plain speak dialogue and dry humour of old are lost for broader characterisation and flippancy that hit the SIS staff especially. The less said about Q'ute the better, while the emphasis on realism puts a disconcerting end to the Double 0 Section and the Walther PPK. A few elements are simply under powered: the drab opening, the insipid love interest, a villain who's a paler version of predecessors, and we spend too much time on Bond's comings and goings in the castle.
The set pieces are great: the horse racing, night time car chase & fight on the plane were mirrored in the films. Action scenes, technology and locations are obvious strengths of Gardner's, while the prose in the later section in France is much better. Overall a strong mission statement: not a Fleming pastiche but an entertaining page turner. For Special Services (James Bond 2) was even better!
Gardner begins with an attempt to bring Bond and his world up to date (to the eighties) involving the introduction of new characters, vehicles and explicitly changing some of Bond's characteristics. Then Bond heads to Scotland to investigate a nuclear physicist's suspicious dealings with a known terrorist.
Considering this as part of the wider series, it seems that Gardner has made a conscious decision not to base his writing on Fleming's. There's much less of the character of Bond - one of the highlights of the original novels - and more made of the action and gadgetry, much like the movie version of James Bond. A few aspects are nodded to gently, but they feel out of place. It's not a Bond novel that fits with what's gone before, and could easily have been about a new character rather than continuing the brand.
That aside, the book is a reasonable adventure in its own right. The action is fast paced (once the opening exposition is dealt with) and the plot is well thought through and executed. There are a few too many of the typical James Bond clichés - generally it seems closer to a movie plot.
Overall though Gardner's writing is better than I remembered from reading some of his later Bond novels as a teenager. I'll definitely be including the rest in my re-read of the series.
Penning a continuation 007 novel must be just as daunting as any mission the world's least secret agent tackles himself, but Gardner wasn't completely without experience when he was asked to write the second Bond continuation novel (after "Colonel Sun", by Kingsley Amis a.k.a Robert Markham in 1969). He was into middle-age and a had wealth of published and acclaimed novels in his own right, most notably the Moriarty books, a trilogy of novels composed from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes's formidable nemesis.
On a strictly aesthetic level, Gardner had a much more relaxed style of writing. His Bond novels are still brimming with action, but there is a richer vocabulary there, a greater understanding of how language works, and a reader can languorously unwind in the certainty that they are in the company of a master storyteller.
"Licence Renewed" brings James Bond firmly into the 80s, but as per Gardner's original vision, the character hasn't aged much - despite a few grey hairs, perhaps placing him in his early forties - but has lived through the seventies and is a subject of the sociological advancements of that tumultuous decade.
Bond is faced with a worthy adversary in the shape of Scottish laird Dr Anton Murik, and his love interest is Lavender Peacock, but I will not give too much away. Needless to say, it sees Bond in Scotland, away from the more exotic nirvana of, say, the Bahamas, and the action is mostly set at Murik's castle, a menacing tower of bleakness. It's a terrific start to Gardner's series, a fine novel in its own right, and a thoroughly entertaining read.
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