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on 10 August 2012
Critics who'd mauled Fleming in the 60s spent the 80s complaining that Gardner wasn't him: they praised his 'straight' spy fiction, but merely acknowledged the bestselling success of his Bond novels. In the 90s this had waned, with less publicity accompanying the release of each book and reviewers often not bothering. Gardner himself endured serious illness, while 1991's left field The Man from Barbarossa (James Bond) had been unpopular both with public and publishers. How brilliant then that such a strong contender for his best Bond should follow.

Score: 9/10. Bond and partner of the week, CIA agent, Elizabeth 'Easy' StJohn (don't ask) fly off to investigate/ rescue the surviving members of Cabal: once the western intelligence commmunity's most successful network, its members are dying. It's a very Gardner set up, almost a rerun of No Deals, Mr. Bond (James Bond) but even faster. Even the 'death' themed chapters (contrived but fun) and Diamonds Are Forever quote/title aims to please fans. Conscious decision or not (to return to a winning formula) it works. Like No Deals and Scorpius (James Bond) it resembles an old fashioned spy caper or Hitchcock cold war thriller. Nearly every scene ends in a twist or showdown. It imbues 007 with all the spyworld tradecraft Gardner loved, while using the agents and agencies (as Fleming did) as players in an international game of cloak & dagger/ cowboys & indians.

The intrigue, action and bloody violence are nearly constant, while the 'end of the cold war' theme ironically resurrects it. There's a joy in the Fleming touches: martinis; Hoagy Carmichael; Ost-West Express; chapter 12's nod to You Only Live Twice; lusty sex; the stomach churning spiders incident and the excitement of Bond back on a 'good, tough assignment' as he used to say in the 50s. The airports and stations, luxury hotels, pavement cafes and dark alleys of Berlin, Paris and Venice are so integral to 007's tantalising world of high life and danger it's a wonder he was away so long.

Dialogue-wise Bond is rather elaborate here, almost pedantically longwinded in the interrogation scenes. However he's much more like his old self: passionate, driven and dryly funny; philosophical about the pleasures and grim realities of his work; hellbent on stopping his enemies. The characterisation is pretty good all round with a continent's worth of suspicious and sinister foreigners! Their dialogue is pretty interchangeable but they're all vividly described, with handy codenames for playing Gardner's game of guess who. For once the major villains loom large and there's a nice SMERSH-like paranoia following Bond around, reminiscent of Fleming's early work.

Easy StJohn isn't one of the author's better heroines, the hard faced 90s powerwoman facade lasting roughly two minutes before she attempts to ravish Bond. The less than subtle riff on sexual politics has dated worse than Fleming's (Honey Ryder didn't keep bursting into tears as 007 muttered defensively about sexual harassment claims!) but at least we get Bond's first recorded use of a condom. His gadget filled denim jacket is mercifully binned, replaced by a gadget free but equally distressing blazer. Instead he gets a new Cardin briefcase filled with lifesavers, harking back to earlier Fleming and Gardner versions. Surely the Boldman alias and Predator codename must be an open secret by now!

Nearly every Gardner fan has 'a book that should be made into a film': this is mine. A class act that recaptures the spirit of the originals, and an exciting tale in its own right told at cracking pace. If you read only one of Gardner's 1990s Bond novels, make it this one.
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on 27 July 2012
The 1980s Bond novels had seen the steady thawing of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Fleming plot gambit of 007 playing cat and mouse with a major supervillain. With the brick dust flying in Berlin, and the writer himself off to live in the USA, a palpable turning point was reached in the books both in narrative and context that would launch Gardner's Bond in a completely new direction for the 90s.

Score: 8/10. Bond returns to the Royal Navy for a joint UK, USA and USSR war game marking the USSR's "perestroika" (economic restructuring) and "glasnost" (cultural and political openness) policies. A new terrorist group BAST (Brotherhood of Anarchy & Secret Terror) has threatened to wreak havoc. But whom can 007 trust? Beautiful WREN officer Clover Pennington? Italian sex bomb Beatrice? Or enigmatic Russian Naval Attache Nicki?

It's a radical departure and takes a little getting used to, but it's a resounding success. The techno-thriller style (more Frederick Forsyth than Tom Clancy) really suits Gardner's knack with action and technical detail. The first few chapters alone are packed with exciting and immersive set pieces- you feel you could probably fly a sea harrier! Unlike other breaks from the format Bond remains at the forefront of the action, while intercutting the villains' machinations sets up the next threat without slowing things down. With SPECTRE dead and gone, the author anticipates the risk of BAST becoming a pale imitation: even Bond notes "it sounds like a poor man's SPECTRE." Although we don't get the meticulous background we got from Fleming (or Benson's Union Trilogy), there's a delightfully cynical reason for BAST's hollow heart.

The focus on prose rather than dialogue suits the writer and there are some lovely nods to the past. We return to Quarterdeck, M's country pile at Windsor that first appeared (also at Christmas) in Fleming's OHMSS and then (described in more detail) in Amis' Colonel Sun. The latter adventure is never explicitly referred to in Gardner's novels, but Quarterdeck's description here tallies exactly with Amis' embellishments (Bathstone, silver birches, Spanish mahogany, Squirrel pub) proving that Gardner at least took the trouble to read it!

On the downside, Bond's pretty sour throughout: pining for his naval days for the first time, and spouting chunks of Dante and Gilbert & Sullivan. Enough to make anyone miserable really. There's a lack of glamour as the Bentley and ASP are left at home, replaced by a BMW and a new Browning. Bond's promotion to Captain is a mistake; Commander just sounds better on him (Benson switched him back). Only a little wine before our hero switches to fizzy water, and the naval locations were never going to be luxurious.

Still the structure is very effective: detailed training; bitter sweet interlude; high seas whodunnit. We get Gardner's most convincing love match for 007 yet: attractive and well characterised, she lets the stuffing out of Bond like Honey Ryder before her. The big boys toys and the French meal with a slender WREN officer are very Fleming- I wonder if he'd have been most amused by this of all Gardner's Bonds? Underrated and the biggest welcome surprise of my 2012 reread.
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on 14 May 2009
Back cover blurb:
'A young girl's body is fished out of the Thames. Very sad but not so extraordinary. That is, not until Special Branch discover two unusual items. The only telephone number in the late Emma Dupre's diary was Bond's; also a new kind of credit card. Apparently legitimate but unknown.
Emma, well-connected, ex-junkie, had also been involved with a new religious sect - The Society of the Meek Ones led by the charismatic Father Valentine. The society upholds traditional moral values and is harmless. Or is it? Why does Father Valentine have links with Vladimir Scorpius, the vanished international arms dealer?
James Bond is called in to unravel the threads with the help of the beautiful Harriet Horner, in a labyrinthine tale which brings him face to face with the most sadistic and evil opponent of his career.

Scorpio, first published in 1988, is one of John Gardner's better James Bond novels. The elusive Father Valentine makes a worthy adversary for our hero, and all the classic Ian Fleming traits are intact for the world's most famous spy.
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on 5 October 2015
Along with Role of Honour, Scorpius has to be the worst Gardner Bond I've read. Parts of the plot lifted from OHMSS, but with a cowardly villain at its centre. Bond just stumbles along but this time has an SAS type sidekick named Pearly who is dull as Bond became under Gardner's watch. The Bond-girl in this spends most of her time trying her best to get Bond to knob her, while snuggling up to him and spouting dialogue like this, "Just make love to me now, my dear. That's the best tonic"!

I love Bond but this one is truly awful. If you haven't read any Gardner but are thinking about it, start with For Special Services as at least that has some laugh out loud Bond moments.
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on 10 June 2016
John Gardner wrote this, his seventh James Bond novel, a year before the on-screen Bond faced a similar plot in Licence to Kill. These books are always a balancing act. Don't let the story stray too far from the original Fleming story-line, but also try something new. Its interesting to read a 1980s story where suicide bombing features. Especially when its fuelled by religion and takes the Western intelligence agencies by surprise.

The story sees Bond becomes connected to the death of a woman in London. M asks him to help in the investigation. Returning from Hereford, a Sergeant Pearlman tags along by driving Bond back. An attack follows then a high-speed chase on an English motorway. Upon returning to headquarters, M briefs Bond on the investigation. She is a member of a cult society known as "The Meek Ones", operated by a Father Valentine. With extra information from the CIA, the British Secret Service learn that Valentine is an alias for Vladimir Scorpius. Scorpius is an arms dealer for several terrorist organisations.

As the country's general election approaches, by the use of brainwashed cult members, Scorpius has begun a "holy war". The cult members, thinking themselves to be pure, moral, and unsullied, sacrifice their lives for "the greater good of humanity". They believe that by performing this "death task" that they will achieve paradise. Throughout the novel, The Meek Ones commit several acts of terrorism. This includes several terrorist bombings and assassinations of British politicians.

Bond meets Harriett Horner, an IRS agent working undercover in England. She's investigating a credit card company run by Scorpius. The two work together along with Pearlman to attempt to track down Scorpius. After an interrogation of a captured cult member, Horner is taken captive by Scorpius' men. Pearlman confesses to Bond that he was giving Scorpius information for the benefit of his brainwashed daughter. Together the two set out for Scorpius' base of operations in South Carolina. The plan is making Scorpius believe Pearlman was taking Bond captive.

At Scorpius' island, Bond meets up with Horner once again. The two marry at the behest of Scorpius. Knowing that the marriage is invalid, Bond agrees to go ahead with it thinking it would buy him time until he can escape. On the night the two decide to escape, a water moccasin kills Harriett. At the same time the FBI is conducting a raid of Scorpius' island, which further angers Bond since her death was in vain. Bond returns to the island, finding Scorpius attempting to flee. After giving chase, Bond gets the upper hand. He forces Scorpius to die in a similar manner to that of Horner's death.

So, in summary an enjoyable, but forgettable read. Scorpius had the potential to be as iconic as Auric Goldfinger. Although the story never quite panned out like that. There was a nice nod to Sean Connery in the middle of the tale.

Pulpy fun.
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on 15 August 2011
In 1988, midway through his Bond output and still hitting them into the bestseller lists, Gardner produced his most original 007 story yet. Putting his version of Bond into an astonishingly un-Fleming like tale was an approach that deservedly won this novel many fans. Truly, it's a shame that he wasn't more daring as it's the more familiar elements that disappoint here when the story flags in the last third.

Score: 7/10. A creepy, secret society (Father Valentine's "The Meek Ones") is linked with international arms dealing, just as a wave of evangelically inspired terrorist attacks hit the UK. We have a gritty London death, SAS training, Bond implicated in a murder and establishment figures under threat. It's the most gripping, violent and disconcerting start to a 007 novel since Amis' Colonel Sun: A James Bond Adventure.

It's a great move, the plot unfolding far more like an episode of say "The Professionals" or "Spooks". Just as Bond's been given his task, the narrative drags 007 along so fast you fear he won't keep pace. It's both thrilling and frightening to see both him and M struggling to combat so convincing a threat so close to home. The dialogue as ever isn't the author's forte, but the pace is brilliant- the prose taught and immediate, the characters human and frail. Chapters tend to end on cliffhangers like old fashioned thriller serials. As you might expect with Gardner there's lots of violent action, the intelligence world feels authentic and Bond can't trust anyone, least of all the two 'partners' he's assigned.

It's such a shame that it unwinds. There are too many talky scenes, making Bond late for the action in the next chapter. Scorpius is effectively built up but when he appears he's no Dr No, hiding on yet another exclusive island (Gardner's 3rd in a row!). M's a real pain: no longer Fleming's stern but debonair old-school admiral type, but a rather snide crotchety old snob. Once again Bond doesn't smoke and drinks only a little table wine. Worse, the really promising heroine (bright, tough, sexy) isn't in it nearly enough.

Moreover, the traditional showdown abroad with the villain is a mess. The setting is pleasingly bizarre and the threat sufficiently vast and plausible; but both Scorpius and novel lose the plot as the former fails to decide what he wants to achieve, arranges a wedding for no reason and claims all Gardner's loose plot threads as deliberate red herrings! Despite great stuff like the deadly marsh, the safe house raid and the 'real time' news coverage of the suicide assassinations (frighteningly prescient 20 years on), it's probably a couple of drafts away from being a classic.
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on 8 December 2013
Scorpius is an interesting take on the James Bond novel. There are aspects that feel Fleming-esque, but on the whole it feels neither like something crafted by the character's creator, nor like the previous novels written by John Gardner. It's lost a lot of the more eighties aspects, and feels quite trimmed back and without extravagance.

The book is more of a secret-agent procedural novel, with a little bit of character towards the end that doesn't get followed up properly in this novel - but perhaps Gardner is taking a leaf from Fleming's book and leaving the repercussions to the next book in the series.

The plot itself feels filled with coincidence - Bond just tumbles into events by accident rather than actually going on a mission, and seems a fairly useless agent for a lot of the time. Overall, the whole novel feels like it could have been about any secret agent - it's missing the ingredient that means it could only be about James Bond.

I remember having this book as a teenager - I don't know whether I didn't read it or just completely forgot the plot, but I suspect that if you ask me again in another ten years I will have forgotten again.
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on 16 March 2014
Gardner's eighth Bond novel feels a bit like the point where he's taken things too far. Despite this, the plot is fairly strong and develops from a well formed foundation, however there's a lot that combines to spoil it.

The first problem was that the back-cover copy of my edition gives away one of the major events from the novel that really shouldn't be spoilt. I would have much preferred to have read it without this knowledge in advance.

Bond falling for a girl has become a cliché, despite the narrative's insistence that it's a rarity, but in many ways Gardner's Bond has lost much that Fleming provided the character. The narrative is punctuated by frequent asides and even a footnote which I felt broke the flow of the story and didn't fit with the character the reader is aligned with at all.

Finally there's a really weak climax that I won't spoil. Overall, a book with potential that was let down. I'd love to have read it written differently.
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on 10 May 2015
Bond back in the navy starts as a good idea but sadly soon gets bogged down in plot details with 007 acting
Almost as Miss Marple, trying to discover an assassin on board his ship. The ending feels weak and the villains
Are very poor, almost totally forgettable. Not one of Gardner's better Bond adventures
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on 13 October 2012
BAST (Brotherhood of Anarchy and Secret Terror) plan to the World Leaders (of the time, so it's Gorbachev, Thatcher and George Bush) and then hold the World to ransom. Which leads to the question...How much were they expecting to get? Can't see many British people paying much to get Thatcher back in 1989... In fact John Major probably would have paid a pretty penny for them to have kept her (along with John Smith, the then Labour leader).

Anyway, the book is standard Gardner Bond fare. If you're read any of the other Bond books by John Gardner then you'll know what to expect and if you haven't then I suggest that this isn't the one to start with.

Still, good fun.
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