Monday, September 25, 2017

Bond Unknown

Bond Unknown by Edward M. Erdelac and William Meikle; edited by Neil Baker. A James Bond "weird stories" short story/novella anthology. Originally published by April Moon Books, September 2017. Approx. 250 pages.

HachiSnax Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the editor in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This is exactly what I intend to offer. I want to thank Neil Baker for the opportunity; as well as Ed Erdelac for putting my name out for consideration in reviewing it. Cheers, gents!

Ok, let me start this review with the declaration that I am not a James Bond authority; I have always been a casual enjoyer. My parents took us to the movies fairly often; and I would peek at holiday marathons on TBS, or channels like that. I read some of the Fleming books in my youth; but had to put down recent reading of fare such as John Gardner's Scorpius, because, well, it just wasn't very good.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that even though I am not a Bond "superfan"; I was intrigued and excited by the premise here - weird tales starring everybody's favorite suave spy. This excitement was enhanced by the knowledge that Erdelac would be penning a novella contribution here. I am not familiar with Meikle's work; but a quick look at his Amazon page shows some interesting stuff.

Well; we'll find out soon enough. His tale is up first.

Into the Green:

I think a good primer before going into these types of stories is to determine how do you like your Bond? Which of the actors/attitudes resonate with your best enjoyment of the character? Meikle starts off with this note:

"I’ve been a Bond fan as long as I can remember, and back then
when the world was young JB was Scottish, hard as nails, and a
bit of a bastard. That’s how I like my Bonds, and that’s how he
appears in my story here, which starts with Commander Bond, a
British submarine, and a strange research station in Alaska."

Ok, cool. I prefer my Bond in the Connery/Moore vein myself, as well. In Into the Green, we follow Bond on a mission to Anchorage to investigate some odd goings-on at a research facility. These weird happenings include a dramatic rise in the usual chill Alaskan weather; strange sounds akin to singing in the night sky, and the deaths of a few scientists. One of these scientists was a relative of someone high up on the British food chain; ergo, Bond is on the case.

Here's the short version, up front: I did really enjoy this story (the shorter of the two offerings; coming in at roughly 50 pages). There is some very good stuff in here. However, there are also some aspects the felt a little rushed, or just outright incomplete.

Characters: First and foremost, how is the Bond representation? The story will live or die based on this, right?  Meikle gives us a solid rendition of Bond here. He abides by the tenets that he laid down in his author notes. This Bond is lethal, suave, and, most importantly, always cool under fire.

Sadly, we do not have a dashing Bond girl for him to charm the pants off of; although that may have been a bit incongruous to the narrative.

If there is one complaint that I could posit about Bond here; it's that he doesn't do much in the way of actual intelligence work. At one point, he throws a few pounds into the local rumor mill to see if he gets any nibbles; but that's all pretty much on par with what you might see on an episode of The First 48.

Secondary characters; well, an old friend of Bond's - Duncan MacDonald - is a solid addition. Other familiar Bond dramatis personae such as M and Moneypenney, on the other hand, are little more than name drops.

Then, there is our villain, Kaminski. Sadly, this was the biggest misfire here. Whereas we can often complain about a villains tendency towards expository dialogue preceding their demise; by the end of this story, we have little idea about any solid motive. There wasn't enough given to let us hate this guy; thereby making it difficult for us to garner any satisfaction out of what happens to him.

Story: The concept, in theory, is solid. Meikle has a nice concept in what I'll just term the 'Green'. In essence, it is some kind of object or artifact that allows for mass mind-control. The problem, again, comes in lack of a supporting story for it. What is the beginning and end? Where did it come from; and to what purpose is the drive for seeing its true power unleashed?

On the other hand; we can appreciate the danger of 'dancing in the Green' when we see it as a parallel for the spread of Communism at the onset of the Cold War. There are no indications in this tale that state exactly when it occurs; until, that is, a hint at the end places it in probability around the early 60's. If we appraise the story by dint of this metric; then we can accept that the fact that the Green seeks to rob all sense of individual liberty is frightening enough; and indeed epitomizes all that Bond has fought against.

Meikle writes with a very nice, descriptive style. As mentioned; it makes for a Bond that 'feels' like Bond. The action scenes are brisk, and well-choreographed. His detailing of locations is a bit hit-or-miss. With Bond stories; you often hope for exotic locales. Here, you get Alaska and back home in the UK. For the scenes in Britain, Meikle falls into a habit of mentioning landmarks and such by name. I don't mind having Google open to look up places I am not familiar with; but I needed a little more in the way of a description that made this or that location feel relevant to its inclusion. It helps with the reader immersion.

All in all, a very good story. A little slow at the start; lots of twists and turns in the middle, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?

Looking at the few criticisms, it may seem as though I did not like this story much. However, on the contrary, there are so many good things about it. Also, I finished reading this, and writing the review a few days ago, but there is just something about this story that sticks with you. It lingers within your consciousness, much like the "Green" itself.


Next up, we have a novella by Ed Erdelac. Now, I've been riding on a high from Erdelac's work ever since his phenomenal anthology, Angler In Darkness. Obviously, my expectations for this story were fairly high.

I'm happy to report; I was not disappointed in the least.

Mindbreaker is simply a masterwork. It has, in every aspect, the look and feel of a Bond movie (or novel, for that matter; however, the writing here has a definite cinematic flair to it). Also, the addition of the "strange" elements are done in an excellent manner as well.

Mindbreaker begins with a head-fake: a seemingly normal job for 007 as the Crown Princess has been abducted by what appears to be Middle Eastern fanatics.

Of course, nothing is as it seems - or ever will be again. This is no standard outing; princess rescue mission for Bond. Instead, he finds himself seconded to an even more clandestine division than his own MI6: a shadowy group known as the "O" Division. His new orders involve exactly no princesses; but boil down to the extraction of two scientists in Cairo, and a whole lot of "need to know".

Armed with the barest framework of available intelligence; bond sets off for Egypt. What awaits him is both exciting and terrifying.

Before we look at the separate aspects of the story; let's ponder for a moment a shortlist of the ingredients that one usually finds in a Bond adventure: a capable, sexy Bond girl; a deadly, sexy villainess (and both with ludicrous, innuendo-laden names? check!), a tougher than nails antagonist, dryly humorous one liners, top of the line sports cars, exotic locations, and unique 'gadgets'. And yes, these are all present in Mindbreaker.

Characters: Another winning representation of Bond here. Erdelac's Bond is suave and debonair, but also practical, pragmatic, and lethal. He is also a bit of a damaged superspy; nearing mandatory retirement, he has also suffered greatly courtesy of some mental tinkering and brainwashing courtesy of the Russkies. This Bond is rightfully leery and cynical of the outlandish entities that O Division is pitching to him as gospel; the question becomes: as he realizes bit by bit the validity of their existence, will he possess the proper mental capacity to surmount the odds?

Bond girl Petra "Pet" Bottoms makes for a great character here as well. One of the scientists to be rescued; she also has ties with the mysterious O Division. Characters like her fall squarely into one of two categories: asset or nuisance; with the majority getting lumped into the latter. Luckily, due to Erdelac's strong character development, Bottoms is definitely in the former.

As mentioned, our villains are top-notch here. Beatrix "Trixie" Treat is a perfect example of a twisted, manipulative, malicious b-word. And, the other antagonist, Fesche, starts out seemingly as another hulking henchman; only to showcase surprising depth, resilience, and cunning.

Also, although I cannot detail it too much due to possible spoilers; both of them are already in deep with the powers that be surrounding the titular Mindbreaker (the truth of which is terrifyingly impressive).

Lastly, a character that deserves great praise is that of D.; the head of the secretive O Division. A truly odd character; in appearance much like John Lennon in Yellow Submarine, he is seemingly the polar opposite of the traditional M. However, he is a true mastermind with a finger on the pulse of knowledge that could turn the strongest minds into jelly.

Secondary Characters: Very good as well. In Mindbreaker, we get appearances from old favorites like M and Moneypenny that carry a feel of authenticity; not just name-dropping. Erdelac also gives us memorable characters such as 008 - William Ibaka, who I'd love to see more stories showcasing.

I'm going to list the Princess here as a secondary character. Her appearances bookend the story; and she is actually fleshed out quite well. There is a realness, as well as a genuine sadness to her, that allows for the reader to be truly sympathetic with her. Even when she does a stupid action; it's clear that it is a natural action predicated upon a diet of misinformation that she couldn't conceivably had had the ability to overcome.

Action: The pacing and action here are unbelievable. Bond stories should have action, intrigue, and romance. There should be no room for slow pacing or boredom. At roughly 200 pages, Mindbreaker straddles the line between long novella and short novel. The sheer amount of action crammed into that rather economical page count is pretty impressive.

As for the action scenes themselves, they are masterfully planned and executed. Erdelac knows to keep Bond a lethal, dirty fighter when up close, and a crack shot when the Walther is in play. There is no need for long, protracted brawls, or twirling gun play. Also, I must mention one action scene - involving Corsican mobsters attacking a train - that is one of the better sequences that I have read in quite a while.

The 'Strange' Factor: Ah, now we get to the crux of the matter. Where Into The Green offers something of the unknown for Bond to combat; in Mindbreaker Erdelac opts to toss Bond into the mind-breaking world of Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos. I haven't read any of his other Lovecraftian tales; but from what I can see in display here, he is one of the few authors who can get it right. Far too many authors try to go for the shock and horror of describing the elder horrors - yet, the true horror is in knowing that they exist; that they've always existed. True abominations just out of sight; itching at the periphery of our vision. And, sometimes, they find a way to tear through the gossamer-thin dimension that separates us from them.

Erdelac wisely opts for a slow, easy transition; incrementally introducing the more strange elements. We come to acceptance at the same speed as Bond; and, by the genuinely frightening climax, we have near eschewed Fleming entirely and fallen into the fathomless depths of Lovecraft's mind.

There are so many more details that I could pack in there; but I think it best for the reader to enjoy the ride on their own.

And then, the whole thing ends with a superbly written, truly poignant ending.

In closing, I want to mention, again, how much I truly enjoyed this anthology. As we all know, not all crossovers are meant to be - they don't all yield that coveted "chocolate and peanut butter" combination. Honestly, I was a bit wary about this one - wasn't there just a tad too much incongruity between Fleming's superspy and Lovecraft's Elder Gods? Luckily, the contributions of Meikle and Erdelac show that it is truly possible, especially when the authors respect and understand the source material. I mean, given past scenarios, supervillains, etc., we know that the Bond universe is fertile ground for the outlandish. So, perhaps, a Lovecraftian pairing had been written in the stars all along.

Also, it bears noting that each story comes with an accompanying picture. I truly liked the picture for Into the Green; as it offers a great portrait of Bond himself (whenever I read Bond lit; I tend to picture a surlier, burlier Roger Moore; but to each their own). The picture for Mindbreaker is a bit more generic; focusing on an underwater discovery by Bond and Bottoms. A much better pic would've been one in this vein:

Keep this in mind towards the climax....

So, again, if you can, give Bond Unknown a shot. My only complaint at this point is that it isn't a 400 page anthology, with even more stories in it. Perhaps if this one is successful....

Head on over to April Moon Books and order your copy today (only print for now). Support small press! For, without publishing houses like this; these titles don't get to see the light of day.

Visit William Meikle here.

Check out Ed Erdelac's blog here.

And once more, thank you Neil Baker for the privilege of reading this for review. Great work!

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