Wednesday, 27 April 2011

‘Department 19’ – Will Hill (Razorbill)

The publication of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ always had me in mind of the fall of the Roman Empire in a way. Seriously, stick with me on this one... The Harry Potter books took over ‘Young Adult’ literature in a way that you don’t often see at all. Nothing could stand against these books and their influence could be seen in other books published at the same time. Everything comes to an end though and that was certainly the case here; Harry Potter did what he set out to do and there was nowhere else for the series to go after that. ‘Young Adult’ fiction suddenly had a great big hole in it, waiting for another series to assume pre-eminence and build a little empire of its own.

No writer appears to have stepped up to the plate (yet) and written a young adult series with the same universal appeal as ‘Harry Potter’; what we’re getting instead (at least as far as I can see and please correct me if I’m wrong here) are series targeted at a more specific audience. Will Hill’s debut ‘Department 19’ is one of these and I can see it doing very well in that regard. It’s a shame then that it didn’t quite work for me...

Jamie Carpenter always thought that his father died a traitor to his country; that’s certainly the stigma he has had to live with for much of his young life. The truth is far stranger though and it will take the kidnapping of Jamie’s mother for this truth to come to light.
When Jamie’s mother disappears he finds himself rescued from the clutches of a vampire and taken into the protection of Department 19, a top secret government agency that combats supernatural threats. The operatives of Department 19 are perfectly placed to keep Jamie safe and introduce him to a future that he never even knew existed. They might even be able to rescue his mother from her vampire kidnappers but that will prove a little trickier, especially when the true nature of the vampire threat begins to reveal itself...

‘Department 19’ is one hell of a read, no doubt about it; I tore through this one like you would not believe (up to and including using the baby as an excuse to stay up and do a little extra reading at the weekend). By the end though, that awesome rush was tempered by the fact that the whole thing felt a little hollow in maybe the worst possible way.

When ‘Department 19’ takes off it doesn’t just take off, you can tell that Will Hill is flying with his story and having a lot of fun along the way. ‘Department 19’ may well be another tale of secret government agencies fighting the supernatural etc (and there are plenty of those) but it is also an adrenaline fuelled romp full of stand up fights with vampires, double crosses and stuff blowing up. There are also more than a few chilling moments that you find yourself having to get through in order to find out what happens next. This all throws the pace into overdrive and the book moves too fast for you to even consider getting off. Just enjoy the ride while it lasts.
You could accuse Hill of just throwing everything at the page (to see what sticks) and you wouldn’t be far off the mark here. I got the feeling that Hill was operating on the principle that more spectacle must make for a better reading experience and, to be fair, there is a case to be made for that. It certainly made the pages fly by here.

Spectacle will only get you so far though and luckily Hill appears to have taken this on board, paying real attention to his plot and background. The plot is well thought out with enough twists and turns to maintain interest over a book that is five hundred and thirty seven pages long (in the ARC format). Just when you think you have a handle on things Hill makes a mockery of your assumptions by asking pertinent questions and sending the ball rolling in a totally different direction. The setting is gorgeously realised as well with Hill taking elements from classic horror novels (I’m not telling you which ones but I’m sure you can guess...) and wrapping them up with a well thought out government organisation. Certain chapters in the book detail the founding of Department 19 and how events from the past have influenced what is happening in the present. I liked the way that these chapters were staggered across the book and give the reader a handy dose of information at exactly the right time.
Vampires may be the enemy but that doesn’t mean that they are treated any differently in terms of how they come across on the page. Hill pays equal attention to setting the scene with these guys and the overall affect is a fully immersive background that provides the ideal stage for the plot to play out against.

It’s a real shame then that the character of Jamie himself proves to be such a poor choice to hang the whole thing off. Given his circumstances you can expect Jamie to be a little obsessive about what he’s after (rescuing his mother) and how he goes about getting that. What got me though was the fact that Jamie’s character shows very little sign of developing as the story progresses. Jamie reacts to things but there’s never any thought behind that reaction and there’s certainly no sign of his character altering in any way as a result of those reactions; it’s just on to the next reaction and it all felt a little one dimensional to me (especially when there were far more interesting characters in the background). I wonder how the story would have turned out if Jamie had remained the focus but the perspective had shifted onto someone else?
The bottom line for me was that the gorgeously rendered background and supporting cast didn’t gel with the rather stolid and one dimensional lead and that often made the read a chore when it really didn’t need to be.

There is a lot to recommend ‘Department 19’ and I can certainly see it appealing to readers who are after a ‘high stakes’ read that will engage you right away. Unfortunately for me, the lead character didn’t offer that same level of engagement and that’s where things fell down as far as I was concerned. I’m pretty sure I’ll be around for the sequel though so we’ll see if things pick up there.

Eight out of Ten


Justin said...

Isn't Hunger Games sort of that series that stepped in the Potter void? Although, I guess that one is done now too.

Ms. Yingling said...

You're right about Jamie's character, even though I wasn't bothered by the lack of development when I read the book. I don't know that my students will notice, but maybe he will be stronger in the next book.