Licence Expired : The unauthorized James Bond
Edited by Madeline Ashby and David Nickle
This review is was originally posted on the website Literary 007.
This book is the first to explore James Bond outside of the constraints of the officially licensed Bond continuation novels. Currently in Canada rights over written works revert to the public domain 50 years after the death of the author. This gave ChiDunnit, an imprint of ChiZine publishers, a chance to take a crack at the literary Bond. They gathered a number of Canadian authors to write short stories set in 007’s universe and this collection is only available for purchase in Canada.
This is an exciting development. As fans of other public domain characters have found, giving a variety of different authors a chance for their own take on a well known character can be very reinvigorating. It can also help new readers discover the original work or allow new perspectives on old characters.
Even Bond fans have seen this from the refresh a new Bond actor and director or new “official” Bond continuation novel offers.
That’s not to say every new take we see is going to be great or that there won’t be some misfires but there’s also the opportunity to read something new and exciting.
This collection runs the gamut from stories that would be right at home with Fleming to others that attempt to subvert the traditional image of Bond. Below is my take on each of the 19 stories (plus the Introduction) in this collection, and each mini review has a quick grade.
Bullseye – Either a perfect Fleming-style take on Bond or a truly original spin on the character.
Hit – A solid story taking advantage of the chance to use the literary Bond.
Miss – Just doesn’t quite work as a Bond story.
Introduction by Matt Sherman
Normally I wouldn’t touch on the introduction but this one was especially good. Sherman does a great job of setting up Bond’s place in the world of pop culture and in the world of collectors. His passion for Bond is obvious and contagious. By setting the context of Bond fandom, he places Licence Expired in its unique position as a continuation of that fandom.
“One Is Sorrow” by Jacqueline Baker
This story is a look at Bond’s schoolboy days as seen through the eyes of a young girl that works as a maid at his school. It’s told from her perspective, somewhat reminiscent of “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Something draws her to young James, but when another boy gets involved tensions run high. By the end we are given an idea of where all of Bond’s brooding may have started. There have now been several “official” young Bond continuation novels, but this story still works.
“The Gale of the World” by Robert J. Wiersema
Many of the authors in this collection are well known as science fiction, fantasy or horror authors and this is the first story that turns hard into the horror genre. Unfortunately, I think this is a case where horror in the style of H.P. Lovecraft and Bond don’t mix well.
Giving Bond’s background a supernatural twist just doesn’t fit, and covering the supernatural portion of his adventure in choppy flashbacks keeps the story from developing a smooth flow. Even a late story twist can’t save this one. Perhaps this is one concept that requires a full length novel to set the scene and really pull off.
“The Gladiator Lie” by Kelly Robson
This story is a bit of an alternate reality story, picking up threads seen in From Russia, with Love. Robson has Tatiana Romanova and Rosa Klebb spiriting a drugged Bond away to a Siberian gulag for use as a test subject for Russian mind control drugs.
It is essentially a Taitiana story with Bond in a supporting role. We see Bond’s drug induced fever dreams and Taitiana becoming more comfortable with her ambition. Although 007 isn’t the lead, it still offers him some moments that show the core of his personality.
“Red Indians” by Richard Lee Byers
This story is a great example of what having a character like Bond opened up to the public domain can offer. Byers uses Bond’s reaction to the beating he took from Le Chiffre and his henchman in Casino Royale as his jumping off point. Bond has decided that if he’s going to take on SMERSH, he’ll need to be skilled with more than just a gun. As a test of his skills he maneuvers himself into a fight to the death with an underworld expert in savate de rue.
There are some wonderful Bond moments and it is the perfect example of the fun nooks and crannies of the Bond universe that can be explored once the character is set loose.
“Mastering the Art of French Killing” by Michael Skeet
It feels odd to call a Bond story a delight, but this one is. Skeet writes like a master chef, taking a real life character and spinning a light, tasty fictional tale with just the right dash of brutal violence to keep it firmly in the Bond world.
“Half the Sky” by E.L. Chen
Hard as it is to believe, I don’t think any of Fleming’s Bond books take place in Hong Kong. That city is a natural setting for a Bond story and Chen does a very nice job putting you right in the boat with Bond paddling through Victoria Harbour past the locals on the way to 007’s objective. Bond is on a routine mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist, but complications, of course, emerge.
“In Havana” by Jeffrey Ford
The stakes in this story are high; Bond is on the hunt for a serum that can turn anyone into a super strong raving maniac. Mafia thugs are in Havana to sell this formula to the Russians and Bond’s job is to intercept them before the handoff. When 007 gets dosed himself, we see the difference between everyday Bond and feral Bond … or is there one? Not showing everything that Bond does on this drug diminishes the impact of his callousness over the events of the story. That’s essentially what keeps this story from working for me.
“A Dirty Business” by Iain McLaughlin
Building a solid spy story in just a few pages is difficult. McLaughlin proves he is up to the task with this tale of an old friend of Bond’s and the duty to a given mission. An expensive dinner, beautiful women, and a dangerous assignment are all at play in this compact tale that shows why Bond deserves his licence to kill.
“Sorrow’s Spy” by Catherine McLeod
This is a trifle. A minor story with Bond as a supporting character. Not bad, but Bond doesn’t feel necessary for the telling of this tale.
“Mosaic” by Karl Schroeder
Typically an author of science fiction, I’ve enjoyed reading Schroeder’s previous novels. With this story he is firmly in the real world, or at least as real as Bond allows.
Taking advantage of the Cold War setting, we find Bond on a tropical island in the midst of a mole hunt just prior to a British nuclear test. The setting and stakes are appropriately epic.
Schroeder’s real success is in creating an unique and worthy companion for Bond. She proves to be just as capable as him and carries a mysterious past.
I hope Schroeder gives another espionage story a go. He’s got a knack for it.
“The Spy Who Remembered Me” by James Alan Gardner
What will happen to Bond when he’s still young enough to be useful but not the unstoppable force he was in his younger days? Gardner explores that idea in his story and gives a very realistic answer. A cameo appearance by a past character stretches plausibility but the central concept is strong enough that it doesn’t break.
“Daedelus” by Jamie Mason
Mason takes a traditional Bond style story, mixes in a few old favorites and a dash of the modern realities of espionage for an enjoyable tale, but one that in the end feels just a little too on the nose.
“Through Your Eyes Only” by A.M. Dellamonica
M’s new secretary discovers that no matter what woman is in front of him, Bond only sees who he wants to. It’s a clever conceit but giving his actions a medical name diminishes wildness of the idea. This one is kind of trippy, but if you can buy into the concept you’ll enjoy it.
“Two Graves” by Ian Rogers
At the end of the world Bond faces the supervillain he couldn’t beat and has to decide where he goes from there. I enjoyed it while reading it but, in the end, I felt it was missing something about the antagonist’s motivations that kept this from being successful. I think the lack of clarity was part of what the author was going for, but it just didn’t click for me.
“No Mr. Bond” by Charles Stross
Out of this list of authors, Charles Stross is the one that I know has some spy credibility. His “Laundry Files” series is a well known and received riff on spy novels but with a supernatural bent. As a result, I had high hopes for his entry and it is enjoyable. It’s written as a monologue by what seems to be a super-villain mashup of Elon Musk and Donald Trump as he interrogates Bond.
However, as enjoyable and fun as this is, it is firmly in the parody/satire category. Given that the point of this collection is to write Bond stories that couldn’t otherwise be written, the author has missed an opportunity. I have to give this one a miss.
“The Man with the Beholden Gun: an e-pistol-ary story by some other Ian Fleming” by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
This is an odd one. It is written not as a Bond story, but as a series of letters from an alternate reality Ian Fleming to a some-time lover. It’s obviously intended as a meta commentary on the machismo and sexuality of Bond. For me, it didn’t work.
“The Cyclorama” by Laird Barron
Bond is captured by a villain he cannot defeat and left to watch flashes of his life spin past him as time slips by. Another weird one but had enough go right to end on the positive side of the board.
“You Never Love Once” by Claude Lalumière
“Not an Honourable Disease” by Corey Redekop
The opportunity to read a story about a well known literary character decades after their first written exploits took place is almost always appealing to writers that follow the original author. There have been some great Sherlock Holmes stories that have done just that. Although the concept of a super spy fading into senility has been seen before, to have it explicitly be 007 is striking.
In the above two stories we see two versions of the Bond we know. In the former, he’s a legendary figure who has slowed down but not quite yet lost his step. In the latter, he’s relegated to a nursing home, fading in and out of his past outrageous adventures, now forgotten by the country he protected.
Both stories are told through the view of another person with parallels to 007 who have their own issues that their encounter with Bond cause them to reflect on.
Redekop in particular manages to work up to a really affecting moment between Bond and his new protagonist while at the same time offering some interesting insights into Bond’s character.
Overall, I’d say this is a collection well worth seeking out. In my view the hits outweigh the misses, and the misses were trying something new even if I didn’t feel they hit the target in the end.
Hats off to the editors, David Nickle and Madeline Ashby. Although the stories are unconnected, the editors have arranged the stories in a loose chronological order, which I appreciated. It gives a good sense of what type of writing might be possible with the reins loosened.
I know they rushed this out due to worries of the Canadian copyright getting extended to a timeframe similar to the US, and after a quick search, it seems that is going to be the case. This may be the last chance for decades to see a number of writers that would otherwise be unable to play in Bond’s world give their “unofficial” take on 007. With Bond soon off limits for another 20 years this was a project worth doing.
Total Bullseyes: 6
Total Hits: 7
Total Misses: 7
Final Verdict: Hit
A special thank you to my friend Reyna Griffin who picked up the book for me on her recent trip to Canada and is a huge Bond fan herself.