I bought Department 19 on holiday a couple of weeks ago from one of those shops selling hardbacks cheap. I have just published a book, London Gothic, on the subject of spies, vampires, secret organisations and as this book covers those same elements I wondered how they might compare.
Mr Hill’s book was published in 2011 and there are two sequels out now. I expect he wrote the book after I wrote London Gothic, which dates back to January 2009 in first draft, so there is no way we could have influenced each other.
I enjoyed this book tremendously despite some gaping holes in character motivation and plotting (though these might be resolved in the sequels). In essence, 16 year old boy (Jamie Carpenter) discovers that his father fought vampires and died a traitor when he is flung into the James Bond style world of Department 19, dedicated to protecting the world against the supernatural. Great stuff.
Mr Hill borrows from Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to populate his story. Using the characters from Stoker’s Dracula and the Monster from the Boris Karloff version of Frankenstein. Each to his own and those books are well out of copyright so I have no problem with this. I think it’s a great shame he didn’t use Shelley’s Monster, but I suppose the idea of using other people’s characters is that they are in the public consciousness and it is the Monster more or less in his most famous characterisation on film (complete with neck bolt) that Mr Hill uses.
One thing Mr Hill does brilliantly is write historical drama. The sections set in the past, while being backstory, positively sing. He captures the 1890’s brilliantly. Much Kudo to him for this.
Jamie is a little too wish-fulfilment for me. In the Horrowitz mould of boy agent, Jamie is just too good, too fast. I would have preferred him a little less capable and a little luckier, but the story zips along very enjoyably.
In London Gothic, Peter Craig (18) has been trained as a spy his whole life by similarly clandestine branch of the UK secret service. However, they aren’t the slightest bit supernatural inclined, economic espionage and agent provocateurs is their style. Peter isn’t quite human and he is the culmination of centuries of evolution that make him a natural at all forms of deception. But he isn’t as good as he thinks he is and I bring the whole thing down on him like a pack of cards at the end.
What Peter and Jamie do share is a supernatural girlfriend and for me, Department 19’s Larissa is the highlight of Hill’s book. Tough, sassy and a little bit malevolent, Larissa is the best character, gets all the best lines and makes the book come alive. She is the vampire with a heart, though why she is motivated the way she is, is never properly explained.
In London Gothic, Sal Dark plays the same sort of role, though she is also comic relief (and sexual relief) for the story. She isn’t a vampire though and, like everyone else in the book, most of what she tells people is a lie.
Department 19 is a straightforward good guys against the bad guys, though Hill does introduce some contrary elements that make his vampires far more than one dimensional. London Gothic is about some slightly bad guys against some other bad guys, and some other bad guys etc. Peter’s self created role is to prevent genocide and get everybody around the table to talk. In this, virtually everyone opposes him.
I liked Department 19 enough to buy the first sequel. If you like violent Vampire stories with a superb female companion helping the hapless hero, you’ll like it too.
If, on the other hand, you like violence and sex with much darker heroes and a convoluted plot, you might prefer London Gothic. I would recommend you buy both :-)