What I’m Reading – Solo By William Boyd
A James Bond Novel
Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA
Okay. I admit. When it comes to James Bond, I’m biased. I love the movies. The books, not so much.
That being said, I have enjoyed the Ian Fleming James Bond novels that I’ve read. I just haven’t liked them as much as the movies.
The most fun part for me of reading Fleming’s novels is seeing firsthand his vision of the James Bond character, which is very different from the way the character is portrayed in the movies, by any of the actors, Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig.
Fleming passed away in 1964, but starting in the 1980s, the James Bond novels continued with a series of novels written by John Gardner, who penned these stories into the 1990s. Afterwards, other authors took over.
Solo by William Boyd is the latest of the James Bond novels and the first by Boyd. I was eager to read it.
Solo takes place in 1969, and the character of James Bond is 45 years old. M sends Bond on a mission to Zanzarim, Africa, a country in the midst of a civil war. M informs Bond that it’s his job to see that this war doesn’t happen, as it is in the best interest of Her Majesty’s government. To avert this war, Bond is instructed to find the rebel leader, a man named Solomon Adeka, and in the words of M, to make him “a less efficient soldier.”
So, Bond travels to Africa under the guise of a newspaper reporter, where he befriends a young beautiful female contact, Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant, who helps him infiltrate the rebel forces. Bond also meets the very deadly Kobus Breed, Adeka’s right hand man, whose calling card is that he hangs his enemies on hooks through their jaws, like human-sized fish.
Bond soon finds that things in Zanzarim aren’t what they seem, and in order to get to the bottom of things and save his own life in the process, Bond has to go undercover and work “solo” and without sanction from Her Majesty’s government. His investigation eventually leads him to the United States, where he’s reunited with his old friend Felix Leiter, and together they solve the mystery of the Zanzarim revolution.
For a spy novel, Solo certainly takes its time. The pace is anything but urgent, and Bond doesn’t decide to go “solo” until well into the novel, nearly two thirds of the way through. As a result, I had a mixed reaction to Solo. While I certainly enjoyed the characterization of James Bond, I really couldn’t get into the story, as the events in this plot never really grabbed me.
The early scenes of Bond infiltrating the foreign press corps so he can get close to the rebel leader Adeka are very slow moving, and they do very little in the way of moving the plot forward.
I also found the plot about the Zanzarim revolution difficult to get my head around. Bond doesn’t really know why M is so interested in stopping this revolution, and as a result, neither do we. It’s difficult to care about what’s going on when we’re not even sure what Bond is fighting for.
When Bond finally does decide to go “solo” towards the end of the novel, this plot point also fails to lift the story to a higher level simply because in the movies James Bond has chosen to go rogue in a number of films, including two of the recent Daniel Craig Bond films, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) and SKYFALL (2012) and the second Timothy Dalton film LICENSE TO KILL (1989), so this plot point isn’t new or exciting.
To be honest, I found the story here in Solo to be somewhat of a snooze.
Author William Boyd fares much better when writing characters. I thoroughly enjoyed his characterization of James Bond, and I enjoyed being inside Bond’s head. He makes Bond a tough no-nonsense agent, clever and covert when he has to be, and also a deadly assassin. There’s a particularly brutal scene in which Bond exacts revenge on a key enemy, and it’s one of the more effective scenes in the novel.
Boyd’s Bond also drinks and smokes enough to make Ian Fleming proud. If Bond weren’t a fictional character, he’d be dead from all the alcohol and nicotine he consumes.
Of the movie Bonds, I definitely pictured Daniel Craig as William Boyd’s James Bond.
The character of Efua Blessing Ogilvy-Grant was one of my favorite characters in the book. She’s smart, tough, and very sexy. Boyd seems to excel at writing the love scenes in this one, as they are some of the more tender and memorable sequences in the novel. Ogilvy-Grant is more than just a femme fatale, as she’s also a formidable opponent who gives Bond a run for his money when she becomes more than what Bond expected.
Kobus Breed is also a memorable villain, one who lives up to the role, as he instills fear in those who cross him. Boyd does a nice job making Breed frightening. And Breed really is the main villain in the novel, since the more powerful players pulling the strings, the people Breed works for, tend to hide in the shadows and we never really get to know them as well as we do the brutal and overly violent Breed.
Solo was an OK read, but to be honest, I was a little disappointed. I expected more from a James Bond novel. I thought the plot was difficult to get into, and the action and suspense minimal until the third act. I also thought the titled “solo” plot-point where Bond goes rogue to take on the bad guys on his own nothing new and actually rather tired.
Solo therefore is a mediocre Bond tale that could have benefitted from a more emotional and tangible plot. Its characterizations are all on the money, but the plot Bond and his friends find themselves in is rather blah.
I was neither shaken nor stirred.