In brief: James Bond is back – this time on a vague mission to stop a civil war that leads him to go ‘solo’ to avenge himself.
The good: It’s James Bond. Good James Bond.
The not-so-good: A little slower in parts – have the movies caused me to expect non-stop action
Why I chose it: Copy from The Reading Room – thanks Anna!
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Setting: England, Scotland, Africa and the US
My rating: 8 out of 10
The launch of Solo in London was spectacular from my Twitter feed – there were fast cars, glamorous women and cocktails (I presume shaken, not stirred) before a number of copies of the book enclosed in briefcases went flying around the world (one ended up in Sydney, Australia). These were signs that this was no ordinary book – this was James Bond and he was back.
William Boyd is the latest author to tackle Bond. I’ve read and enjoyed Ian Fleming’s originals and several of the John Gardner and Raymond Benson novels. What Boyd has done is something different to Gardner and Benson – taken Boyd back to the 1960s – 1969 to be exact. Boyd uses the details from Bond’s obituary published in You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming, so we know that Mr Bond has just turned 45. A night at a luxurious hotel has Bond randomly meeting a woman, but his plans for a long seduction go awry when he is asked by M to undertake a rather ambiguous mission – stop the civil war in Zanzarim. Zanzarim is a small country in West Africa that has been split into two halves after oil is found. Here, Bond’s contact is the beautiful Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, who leads him on a secret mission into the south of the country. Disaster erupts and Bond finds himself alone. Can he trust Kobus, the man with half a face? Is he more than part of the war?
Later, on R&R, Bond can’t get some of the images he saw in Zanzarim out of his head. So much so, that he decides to go against orders and undertake a solo mission. What he will uncover is something much bigger and much more powerful…
Boyd is exceptional at the plotting of Bond’s missions and creation of the villains. I certainly didn’t see some of the twists coming (they’re much more complex than in the films) and things are left nicely vague regarding some of the loose ends at the end should he write another Bond novel. However, it needs to be said that this is not a sugar-coated Bond. Yes, there’s girls and sex, but Bond also has some rather dark thoughts and actions that are what put him at the top of his game. He’s an assassin and he knows it. Another thing Bond is increasingly aware of is his age. At 45, he’s not getting any younger. He’s smarter, but also more cynical. I liked seeing this side to Bond – I don’t think it makes him less likable, but it does make him more human. When he steals a passport, he’s remorseful – but only a tad. One of the main things he’s concerned about is that he fits the age listed!
Boyd also takes Bond off his usual course – there’s no Q, just a sidekick and for the second half of the novel, he works without the support of MI6. While I enjoyed this, it seemed to be a little ‘James Bond vs. the World’ where everything was against him, but Bond was still winning. It’s interesting, but I prefer him on MI6 missions. I think Bond is better as part of a team, than raging a one man war – although perhaps he’s rebelling as part of a mid-age crisis? (Joke.) Although Bond’s near-fanaticism with his salad dressing contents sits a little uncomfortably with me.
Boyd writes well and keeps the plot moving. He doesn’t get bogged down in any one area, but nor does the pace start going over the speed limit. It’s a convincing Bond (perhaps in part to the setting being in the same time as Fleming’s novels) but it’s not THE Bond. Which I know aficionados will never agree on, but it’s nice to hope!
I will definitely seek out some of Boyd’s fiction having had a taste of what he’s capable of in Solo.