Ever since UK publisher Harper Collins held a press event at the Cabinet War Rooms last September there has been a lot of talk amongst bloggers about this book. Now it is finally released, is that early buzz justified? Hell yes - every single word of it. It is possibly the best teen action horror story I have ever read and if managed well I can see a very bright future for it, including movie deals, video games and so on, with a franchise that could rival the megastardom of Resident Evil. I think a minority of authors these days write books with the hope that it will be picked up by a Hollywood movie company who will plough millions of dollars into turning it into a blockbuster release - if ever there was a book that deserved that sort of treatment then it is Department 19, although at no point does it feel as if Will Hill has deliberately set out with this in mind. In fact, very early on in my reading of the book it wasn't so much movie treatment I was thinking, but just how easily the plot, characters, monsters, locations, weapons and vehicles would transfer over to the PS3 or X-Box as a superb First Person Shooter.
The basic premise of Department 19 revolves around one simple question: What if Bram Stoker's Dracula had not been a work of fiction? From this one question we find ourselves joining the dots and the only conclusion we can come to is that if it wasn't fiction then the only possible alternative is that his much loved story is in fact an account of a real life battle between good and evil. Sometimes great books are born from such simple questions, and Department 19 is one of these as it follows the assumption that if Dracula was real, then so were Van Helsing, Harker, Holmwood et al. I can just imagine the excitement Will Hill must have felt as his synapses started firing as he answered every subsequent question that arose, making connection after connection and thereby coming up with the idea for the secret branch of the government that is Department 19.
What really makes Department 19 something much more than your average action horror is the back story that Will Hill has created. Not content to have his young hero battling all kinds of evil, he makes sure that the reader truly believes in the world he has created. The action occasionally leaps back in time, and as readers we are able to follow the adventures of Van Helsing and gang in the early years of the Department. We also get to find out how Jamie's ancestor, John Carpenter, first met Frankenstein, saved his life, and then the latter making a vow that goes on to be honoured for generations of the Carpenter family. Oh, did I not say that Frankenstein's monster was real as well? Keep up - surely if Dracula was real then Big Frank has to be as well, but this time he is fighting for the good guys. If you trawl back through the Spill The Ink blog you will see photos of some of Will's handwritten notes, showing family trees of his characters, a list of the previous commanding officers of Department 19, a guide to the strengths and weaknesses of vampires, and even a detailed list of authorisation codes for the various members of Department 19. And I am sure that this is just a tiny selection of his notes - the detail the author must have gone in to to ensure that his world seemed real must be hundreds of pages in length, and that's in addition to the research he must have carried out into the various historical aspects of his back story.
As well as great back story, Will Hill is also highly skilled at other aspects of the craft of writing. This book has a multitude of great characters, some of whom are not fully fleshed out in this first instalment, but promise to be interesting members of the cast in future stories. Best of all, some of the best characters in the story are the vampires themselves (hey... everyone loves a good villain!). These are certainly not the insipid, vacuous blood suckers that we have had to endure in recent years - Will Hill has drawn on the nastiest examples of these creatures to create his monsters for his inspiration, and in doing so has reclaimed the vampire from the girly, fawning Twilight brigade.These monsters are Homicidal (and yes, I meant that with a capital H): think the sheer single-minded evilness of Kurt Barlow from 'Salem's Lot, the ambition of Deacon Frost from Blade, the sadistic bloodlust of Marlow from 30 Days of Night. Nasty, every one of them, and that is what Alexandru, Valentin and their various minions are like. However just as all these vampires from the annals of horror are very different characters, so too are Will Hill's creations, each with their own personality traits and motivations.
Mr Hill also knows how to write action scenes that leave the reader breathless; over the years I have read many action thrillers, both for kids and adults, and Will Hill's writing of the all-important fight and chase scenes is up there with the best of them. Of course, many of these scenes involve Jamie, Frank et al battling against the evil vampiric hordes, but thanks to the imagination of the author they have a lot more than wooden stakes in their armoury. These vampire hunters are like the British SAS, US Navy SEALs and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal all rolled into one, and they come armed to the teeth with UV cannons, MP5 machine guns, armoured vehicles and best of all, the T-18 pneumatic launcher, aka the T-Bone. One squeeze on the trigger of this marvel of ingenuity and a metal stake explodes from its barrel, with devastating effect for any vampire that just happens to be in its line of fire. But that's not all: said stake has a trailing wire attached to it, which then pulls the stake back into the barrel, and it is reloaded and ready to fire all over again. Genius! How I would love to see Edward Cullen on the receiving end of this weapon.
On top of all this the dialogue that Will Hill writes also flows well throughout the story, and is never intrusive or unrealistic. It fits the characters, and the various time periods in which we see them. And this is his début novel - I imagine there will be many an aspiring author sticking pins in Will Hill voodoo dolls whilst going slowly green with envy.
I read a couple of early reviews of Department 19 on here a while back, written by someone as part of the Amazon Vine programme. Said reviewer, at the end of an otherwise cracking review, questioned whether Will Hill's treatment of Stoker and Shelley in their respective flashback scenes showed disrespect to these two authors. Another reviewer questioned the credibility of some of the plot. I think these reviewers take themselves a little too seriously, obviously know little about teen fiction and need to carefully remove the self-righteous rods from their proverbials. To the first I would ask how can an author who has written a book that treats the creations of these two authors with such reverence be accused of disrespecting their characters? I would not be surprised if many kids who have not yet discovered the joys of Dracula and Frankenstein will actually be encouraged to pick up these books for the first time following a reading of Department 19. And to reviewer number two I would proclaim that teen boys (and many, many girls) are going to totally love this book - they won't care about 100% credibility when there is such an exciting, fast-paced, well-written story to hold their attention. At what age did this reviewer lose the ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy a full-on action adventure story for what it is?
Department 19 is the first book in a series, but unlike many books like this it does bring the main plot of the story to something of a natural conclusion. However, Will Hill very cleverly tacks on a couple of epilogues that have the reader salivating even more for a sequel as he teases us with a couple of very short scenes that in just a few pages set us up for some very exciting plot developments that no doubt will appear in the sequel. I have no idea how many books are planned in this series at the moment, but I am more than happy to keep on reading them for years to come if they are as good as Department 19.
Back in November some bloggers got a little carried away on Twitter by proclaiming Department 19 to be the next Harry Potter. If I'm brutally honest I cannot agree with this as the secret behind Harry Potter's success was its cross-generational appeal, and it was only in the later books in the series that the plot started to get a lot darker and less kid-friendly, but by then everyone was already hooked. Department 19 will sadly not achieve this broad spectrum of appeal as it is certainly not suitable for younger kids and may create a few premature heart attacks amongst the blue-rinse brigade - it is after all an action horror story with many a gory moment, and any movie made would certainly not get a PG rating. We have also heard many publishers in recent years claiming that this new book or that new book will be the next HP - I remember Chicken House saying something akin to this about the Tunnels series (good, but hardly flying off the shelves HP-style), and I wouldn't be surprised if Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books were also touted like this at some point. However, in my mind Department 19 is far better than all of these, and in this case I feel the hype is very much deserved. I have already stated that another book will have to be pretty darn special to beat Department 19 to the top spot in my list of Books of the Year for 2011 - I am more than happy to be proven wrong as that would mean yet another outstanding book is on the shelves, helping even more young people to develop an enjoyment of reading for pleasure.