Heads You Die by Steve Cole

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James’s Cuban holiday has become a nightmare mission to save one of the last remaining links to his past. If he is ever to see his friend again, he must steal the darkest secret of a man with 1,000 ways to kill.

Pursued by corrupt cops and hired assassins, James’s quest takes him from the sun-drenched streets of Havana to a mystery wreck deep in Caribbean waters – and beyond to a deadly showdown. As a countdown to mass murder begins and killers close in, fates will be decided with the flip of a coin.

Heads or tails. Live or die.

I’ve enjoyed the Young Bond series since Charlie Higson’s first, Silverfin, and their telling of James Bond’s adolescence, sticking as close as can be imagined to the Fleming version of the character.

Since Steve Cole has taken over, he has tended to steer away from the Eton-set stories that Higson often favoured. This is perhaps a wise choice, as Higson set one or two of his books almost exclusively there. Cole instead skews closer to movie Bond, by having our young hero travel to exotic locations in unusual ways. His use of the 1930s is also interesting in his integration of whatever technology was popular at the time, like the zeppelin airship of Shoot to Kill.

This book feels closer than ever to an adult James Bond – it has similarities with the movie Thunderball. A Caribbean island (Cuba in this instance) and a few diving sequences, although they’re well-paced here, unlike Thunderball!

Steve Cole has plenty of fun in character invention here, particularly on the bad guy side of things. The big bad Scolopendra is brilliantly named with a typically dastardly scheme, his henchman El Puno is a blunt object along the lines of Jaws or OddJob. His seemingly invulnerable fist is his main character trait, putting him up there with the best henchmen in terms of pure menace.

James himself has some great allies in this outing; his friend Hugo, small in stature but huge of will and heart, and Jagua, the fiery daughter of Scolopendra, are well-developed and interesting characters.

Plotwise, Cole skips along from scene to scene with not much let-up, again in a similar structure to a classic Bond movie. From footchases through Havana to underwater tussles to multi-storey scuffles, via seaplanes and evil lairs, it’s helter-skelter throughout.

Alongside all of this are a couple of great little nods to the character and history of the character of James Bond.

Another fun outing – Bond is in safe hands with Steve Cole.

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