Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

9780099576983The twelfth James Bond book marks a real low point in the series. More a travelogue than an espionage novel, and with fewer thrills than Ulysses, beyond the opening pages, which provide some genuine characterization and depth to 007 as he wallows in self-pity and guilt following the murder of his wife, there’s an overriding sense of boredom in Fleming’s prose and plotting. Fleming exhibited such imagination and bravado in his earlier works, but his trademark zest is in short supply here.

Since his wife’s death, Bond’s usefulness to Her Majesty’s government has expired. He is drinking more than ever, gambling gratuitously, and even worse, has bungled his most recent assignments. M is ready to pull the plug on 007’s career with the service, but is encouraged to send Bond on one final, “impossible” mission. And so, he is dispatched to Japan to convince the head of Japan’s secret intelligence service to provide Britain with information from radio transmissions captured from the Soviets. Alas, Bond and his superiors at MI6 don’t have anything Tiger Tanaka wants; but Tiger sees something in Bond, and demands he use his deadly skills to assassinate Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a “Garden of Death” in an ancient castle. And yes, you should take “Garden of Death”quite literally – it is a place full of toxic plants, where people come to commit suicide.

The big twist? Shatterhand is actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld – the man responsible for the murder of Bond’s wife, and former head of SPECTRE. So naturally, this is an assignment 007 accepts. But this time he’s not doing it for Queen and Country; this is about revenge.

The final fifty pages of You Only Live Twice pack some genuine excitement as Bond infiltrates Blofeld’s sanctum and seeks his prey. But even then, it’s all rather perfunctory, and far from Fleming’s best. And the cliffhanger ending – which worked brilliantly in From Russia With Love – is a tad insipid here.

It’s a shame, because the weary, shattered Bond we meet at the beginning of the novel is interesting. We have never seen 007 like this before, with such emotional baggage. But that baggage is rapidly eviscerated in favour of Fleming’s detailed account of post-war Japan. It’s set-up promises much, but fails to deliver; not even the rudimentary elements of the best Bond novels.

ISBN: 9780099576983
Format: Paperback  (198mm x 129mm x 19mm)
Pages: 304
Imprint: Vintage Classics
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 6-Sep-2012
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

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