By the time On Her Majesty's Secret Service is published, James Bond is making waves internationally, both in print and on the big screen, partly propelled by John F. Kennedy's endorsement of Fleming's From Russia With Love, and partly from the world's need to embrace a hero of this kind in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis less than three months previous. And by this point in the game, Fleming was looking to take Bond in new directions, as many writers do once they've been writing their trademark characters for a while. This began with The Spy Who Loved Me, which was different in style and format, but didn't take truly take Bond himself in any new directions. For Bond to truly evolve as a character, old wounds would need to be addressed, and his greatest nemesis would need to return.
If it can truly be said that Bond has a weakness, it's boredom. The story takes place in the wake of Operation: Thunderball, wherein Bond has been assigned to basic detective work involving the possible re-emergence of SPECTRE and its chief mastermind, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Bond is unhappy with this assignment, convinced that SPECTRE is smashed, and Blofeld, no matter how ingenious, is incapable of recreating an organization of SPECTRE's caliber. After repeated ignored requests to be reassigned, Bond finds himself at the precipice of boredom, drafting his resignation letter from the Service.
In the world of James Bond, there are a number of standout women who have known him, but only two define him. The first is Casino Royale's Vesper Lynd, to whom he gave his heart, only to end up betrayed, leading to the string of heartbreaks and one-night stands for which he is known. The second takes the stage here: Teresa di Vincenzo, Tracy to her friends. Tracy's father turns out to be one of the most powerful mafia bosses in the world, with connections enough to learn the whereabouts of Blofeld in exchange for Bond helping to lure Tracy away from her personal death wish. While Bond stalks Blofeld, Tracy is using her father's resources to track down Bond.
In my mind, this is the most important entry in the original Fleming series, the point where Bond truly becomes the Bond everyone thinks they know, as opposed to merely just a shell for the writer's alter ego to inhabit. The English cold war spy becomes the British superspy capable of transcending the ages yet to come. In tribute to Connery, we are finally given some of Bond's backstory, wherein he is listed as Scottish on his father's side (his mother is Swiss), though ironically Connery would become disenfranchised with the role and stepped down by the time the movie version would come to pass. More importantly, we reinforce the character traits that would push Bond through this story. As I mentioned before, boredom drives him into danger, and his need to pursue his targets to the very ends of the earth causes him to ally himself with forces of which queen and country would certainly not approve. The cost of this dogged pursuit echoes the events of Casino Royale. It's this pursuit that will define Blofeld as Bond's greatest enemy, the Moriarty to Bond's Sherlock Holmes. In trying to take Bond in a new direction, Fleming brings his creation full circle.
In honor of Bond becoming Scottish, it's only fitting that we get a Scottish narrator who is more than capable of delivering both the worldliness and gravitas needed to present this story to the fullest. "Who" better than David Tennant? With a list of stage, screen, and voice acting credits as long as your arm, Tennant brings his considerable talents to this narration with an understated dignity and charm. He switches between characters, languages, and accents effortlessly in way that will impress if you stop to take note of them. At times, you're tempted to believe he's a completely different person. The cherry on top is that he correctly says "double-oh," regarding the running gag in my reviews of how to correctly pronounce "007."
Bottom line, this is quite possibly the best novel in the series, made better by a superior presentation.
If this novel were written outside of the Star Wars universe, I'd classify it as a simple, fun read. I have no problem with that because it captures the equally simple and fun tone of A New Hope, but without the level of epic that film introduced us to. All of the depth that's added to this story comes as a direct result of author Kevin Hearne delving into questions about Luke's character that Hearne has clearly pondered as a part of his own fandom.
This tale centers around a Luke Skywalker in transition. Immediately following the destruction of Death Star I, he is a hero to the Rebellion, but nowhere near competent with his abilities to tap the Force. He is perceived as more of an icon and less of a young man. Where this novel shines revolves around Luke's questions concerning his father, the Force, Darth Vader, and all of the unanswered questions that Obi-Wan left behind in the wake of the original film. Likewise, we can even see how the galaxy perceives the events of the Clone Wars, which Hearne uses to full effect. It's well done. The result is we see Luke at perhaps his most vulnerable, taking his next steps into the larger world of the Jedi Knight he'll become.
Luke is paired off with Katari Kelen, daughter of a biotech mogul who specializes in her own daddy issues and keeping us aware of just how young and inexperienced Luke really is at this point, illustrating just how much he would have to grow in the three years to The Empire Strikes Back.
I've read some of Hearne's other work, and his strengths and weaknesses are exactly the same here. He's excellent with characters and dialogue. His plots are uncomplicated and propel the story forward. But his world building is questionable at best. He creates some interesting and dangerous creatures, but in the little things he's far too Earthbound, taking me out of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. For example, the ever-ubiquitous coffee substitute "caf" from earlier Expanded Universe ("Legends") novels is all over the place here, and apparently buckwheat, noodles, salt, pepper, citrus, mint, "disposable eating sticks," and other such things from our own world can be found throughout the galaxy. I realize these are shortcuts to help make the Star Wars universe feel more real, but it brings down from epic to mundane by its very mention. Or I should say, it does for me. Maybe that won't bother others, but for me it's the little things that keep you in the story or yank you out of it. The good news is that when these things are brought up, Hearne uses these moments of down time to give us more character, which as I've said is his true strength as a storyteller.
Bottom line, it's not a great novel by comparison of the truly standout novels in the Star Wars line, but it's a fun one, and Hearne's character explorations of Luke make it a worthy addition to the new canon.
As narrator, I have to give top marks to Marc Thompson. As this story is told in 1st person, Thompson has to tell most of this book in Luke's voice rather than his own. Not only does he make the most of it, but he does a fantastic job bringing the other characters to life. This is to be expected, given that he's a Star Wars audiobook veteran, but credit where it's due.
Machiavelli's name has become synonymous with evil and corruption, and it was many years with this understanding that I first encountered this book. Now over 20 years later, I return to it with a far better understanding of the situations he writes about and who the players are, most especially Cesare Borgia, whose successes and ultimate failure were of considerable example to this work.
With this new understanding, I'm able to see the pragmatism behind this book, how as a tool to strengthen the objectives of whoever wields it. That it's become a how-to handbook for the tin pot dictators of history is an unfortunate side effect of its wisdom and simplicity that perhaps Machiavelli foresaw when he opted not to publish it himself. But much like Sun Tzu's The Art of War or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, this book cannot be judged by those who have taken its instruction in the ages since it was written. This book is truly one for the ages, capable of raising our awareness of both its historical context and of the modern world around us.
Much has been written of Sir Francis Walsingham, both as a hero to the realm and as a Machiavellian puppet master. As with anything in history, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, and this book does a fine job of navigating the waters of statecraft and espionage that were virtually uncharted at the time. John Cooper paints a nuanced picture of Elizabethan England, explaining how it developed to what we know it to be and what particular threats were faced at the time, and then maps out exactly what Walsingham felt he had to do and why. The end result is that we get a complex look at something that's usually painted as two-dimensional, and Walsingham himself comes across as both hero and villain within the subtext of his era. It's fascinating to see how this compares to other spy/torture setups across other times and places in history as well as how the ramifications continue to affect our modern world.
Champions of Elizabeth may have problems with the notion that the events and attitudes described in this book make the queen look weaker than modern perception might paint her otherwise. I think that assessment is to be expected considering Walsingham's operating procedure was that he only had to be wrong once for Elizabeth to be assassinated, whereas the outside forces had many opportunities to plan and attempt. Personally, I think this fits perfectly with my own understanding of how flighty and prone to tantrums Elizabeth could be at times, which is one of the aspects Walsingham had to work around when positioning his network. But that's just my perception. Regardless of how you want to perceive the queen, the fact remains, she had enemies a-plenty, both within and without, both religious and secular. To protect her was a Herculean job by any standard of the day, and for me it's a treat to peel back the layers and see how it was handled. From the perspective of a post-9/11 world, it rings with familiar echoes.
If you've read the first two books, you know what's coming just by the title: the promised quest to end the life of Thor is at hand... but not without some stops, side trips, upheavals, and character backstory info dumps along the way. It's by no stretch the best world building I've ever seen, but it gets the job done and opens the world considerably in the process. This tale doesn't pretend to be something it's not. Instead, it just gets out of its own way so the fun can continue.
After Fleming's cinematic ramp-up in Thunderball, Fleming does an about-face and gives as a small scale story that's almost completely different from a Bond novel we'd expect. I say almost because there are still all the descriptive hallmarks of food, drink, clothes, vehicles, and weapons. But in this case, Bond isn't the protagonist. In fact, he doesn't even show up until about 2/3rds of the way into the story, and even then, it's by complete happenstance. Our protagonist here is a young woman from Quebec, and we follow her journey to London, Europe, and finally the States, getting to know her in ways that feel realistic... to a noir novelist like Fleming. As always, the little details are there to make it lifelike, and you get the sense that Fleming saw such things in his world. But let's be honest, the entire reason to read a book like this is because Fleming's world is not the "real" world as we understand it, especially given the passage of time into a more socially conscious age.
On one hand, there are lines of narration here and there that will have feminists and most modernly-aware readers cringing. You'll know them when you hear them. On the other hand, the woman we get to know evolves into a strong person who just happens to be in over her head in circumstances that spiraled out of control. Wrong place, wrong time. Enter Fleming's off-white knight, 007, to the rescue. He can save the say, but a flat tire is beneath him. For the sake of our lady, that's probably a good thing. As a bonus, she does get to help him deal with the problem rather than being the too-typical damsel in distress. That should help take the edge off when Fleming has her refer to Bond as her shining knight who rode in to slay the dragons. You were, perhaps, expecting high prose in a Fleming novel?
The Spy Who Loved Me is one of those stories where its on-screen counterpart has virtually nothing in common. We get no megalomaniacal supervillains here, which is an anti-climax after getting Blofeld in the previous book. Instead, Bond is facing down a couple of thugs hired as part of an insurance scam. Interestingly, one of them has steel-capped teeth, clearly the prototype for the character who would appear in the movie that uses this book's title: the iconic henchman known as Jaws. Don't get your expectations up. Jaws is a completely different kind of monster. In fact, it's probably best to dismiss any expectations up front and let our heroine tell you her story, her way.
One of the nice touches I found in this book was that it had that early 60s vibe to it. Fleming makes mention of Jack Kennedy a couple of times, and you can tell that he's convinced the Cold War of the late 40s and 50s, and all of the politics that this engendered, is coming to an end, heralded with a new sense of hope. He couldn't know that such wasn't the case, and he couldn't know the events that would happen over the next few years.
For narrator, it's only right that a Bond girl should take up the microphone. Rosamund Pike's performance here is as varied and nuanced as you'd expect from an award-winning actress of her caliber. She tells you in the interview at the end that she found herself shifting her body postures to suit the characters in addition to changing her voice and accents, and all of her attention to detail comes across beautifully. The character of Vivienne Michel, our protagonist, is French Canadian who spent some time in London, and all of the subtleties of that accent are there. If you stop to notice, you won't be disappointed, otherwise it'll carry across naturally. As my reviews of these 007 Reloaded audios also carry the running gag of the pronunciation of "007," I'll simply point out that it's a non-issue here. After all, Pike's a professional Bond girl, a role that she and most of the others in that exclusive club carry with distinction and pride.
I think, aside from Fleming's obvious un-PC attitudes, the biggest weakness of this book is that it follows Thunderball. On it's own merits, it's actually a good little character drama if you can get past the obvious pitfalls of Fleming's ego.
As with the companion volume on Angelology, this "overview" is less of an overview and more just a compilation of notes, as though the narrator is reading the unorganized journal of some researcher. As scattered and haphazard as it is, there is a lot of interesting things packed inside, much of it delightfully medieval, but beginners will almost assuredly be lost from time to time.
It's a different narrator than on Angelology, and I'm not sure it's a better choice. The recording quality is definitely better, and the guy has a better voice, but he loses all credibility with pronunciation. He keeps putting the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle, and it borders on the cartoonish at times, as though he were trying to pronounce words using a completely different alphabet. But when he does nail it, he does a decent job, considering the mess he's working with.
As with the companion book, my initial recommendation stands: people with a background on this subject or enthusiasts will be better suited for this materials than beginners, and in all cases, the print version will probably be better.
Picking up 3 weeks or so where book 1 left off, this book pushes forward. So far the series is one part Dresden Files and one part Supernatural with a dash of Highlander thrown in just for grins. This particular book opens up the immortality angle by pitting Atticus against a coven of demon-consorting witches from the WWII era. It's hard not to see the influences, and at the same time, it's so easy to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Putting aside initial reactions to certain ideas presented are mandatory as some things may seem counter-intuitive or outright bonkers. But given some thought, there are plenty of ideas worthy of consideration.
As with The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers has created historical fiction where the historical details are as accurate as they can get, and the story he weaves draws those details into something truly macabre. It's one of the hallmarks of Powers that makes me admire him as a writer. When I found about this pseudo-sequel to that other novel, my first question was whether or not he could capture lightning in a bottle twice. The previous novel started slowly and built itself into one of the greatest vampire stories I've ever read to date. For the first third of this novel, I was thinking this was a 3-star book. I shouldn't have doubted him.
Where The Stress of Her Regard deals with Byron, Keats, Shelley, etc., as told through the POV of his character Michael Crawford, this one deals with the next generation of poets and artists, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina, via the POV of Crawford's son, now grown and with a life of his own. I say this is a pseudo-sequel for just that reason. The events of the story here are clearly overshadowed by and as a direct result of those in the previous novel, but this does stand on its own as well. On its own, it morphs into a magnificently sinister read. It's only when compared to the original that this one lacks anything. Even so, it's still a 5 star read by the time you hit the halfway point. I know of very few vampire stories that can hold up comparatively. It's because Powers takes the time to set everything into place, and he tells this story as though it were written like the works of the period. It just feels right. As a bonus, because the historical events are there for anyone to verify, the weirdness practically invites the reader to get to know (or to reacquaint with) the Rossettis just as the first one did for Byron and his ilk. It's the perfect on-ramp for (re)discovery of the Romantic era.
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