Review: Department 19 by Will Hill

I’ve been wanting to read Will Hill’s Department 19 for some time. I think the premise is great: “Dracula … it’s not a story, it’s a history lesson.” and the ‘blurb’ really made me want to buy the book (well done HarperCollins marketing department): “Department 6 is the Army … Department 13 is MI5 … Department 19 is the reason you’re alive.”

On the face of it, Department 19 is Stormbreaker with vampires: hugely talented teenage boy whose father dies under mysterious circumstances is recruited into a secret Government department. But instead of fighting terrorists, Jamie Carpenter is fighting vampires.

And yes, there is a touch of the ‘boys own adventure’ about Department 19. I can’t help compare it to Paranormalcy, also set in a secret ‘department’ tasked with dealing with the underworld. But in Paranormalcy the institute is background, a set left to get on with things behind the action, while in Department 19, ‘the Loop’ is central to the action and described in great detail, almost like a character itself.

After Jamie’s mother is kidnapped and he is taken to ‘the Loop’, he’s understandably awestruck and Hill goes to great lengths to describe it for us. He obviously enjoys doing so; a tour guide who loves his subject. One gets the impression that had Hill’s editor not been stood behind him with a sharp stick, we’d have been given technical specifications for all the equipment.

And I can definitely see how many readers (especially boys) would appreciate that level of detail, especially with the ‘boys toys’ and in the training montage (very enjoyable).

But Department 19 is more than a straight adventure story. The teenage hero is partnered with Frankenstein’s monster (who has taken the name Frankenstein to honour his dead creator) and together they have to fight Dracula’s progeny. The reason they end up in the situation they are, is told in flashbacks which cover various points in an alternative history, from van Helsing’s return to London after the events of Dracula, to Jamie’s father’s death.

The flashbacks are well researched and well written, the tone of each reflecting the period in which they are set, so at no point do you get ‘lost’. The flashbacks give the adventure depth and complexity and keep readers hooked.

Jamie has emotional depth and there is a romance – between Jamie and a vampire – that is believable and draws the reader further into Jamie’s emotional battle.

Larissa herself is a heartbreaking character, whose back-story would draw in even the most jaded reader of vampire literature, but one of my few criticisms of the book are that I wish we had seen a little more of how the final battle effects Larissa (who up till then hadn’t actually killed).

My other criticism is a matter of personal taste, for me the gore (and violent detail) got a bit too much towards the end. Many readers wouldn’t agree and that’s fine. I could just do with a bit less blood and guts late at night.

I enjoyed Department 19 and definitely look forward to the sequel, which is coming out in April 2012.

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