Department Nineteen, by Will Hill, is the beginning to a new young adult series involving a top-secret organization dedicated to destroying the vampires that have infiltrated society, along with the rare but occasional monster. It’s a kind of James Bond/Alex Rider meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, fast-paced, action-filled coming of age story with some flaws — a few implausible moments, some predictability — but a strong backstory, a likable main character, and its fast pace will more than make up for those flaws with its young adult audience.
The deep, historical premise of the book is that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not an imaginative novel, but a mildly fictionalized true-life account (as was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but more on that later). The basic plot actually happened, and when Van Helsing and his companions returned to England, they soon found that the “disease” of vampirism had spread to England (especially important is the continued existence of Dracula’s three brothers and their wives). The government thus formed Department 19 (nicknamed “Blacklight”) and it has fought the good fight down through the years, with the descendants of its founding fathers always asked to join when they reach adulthood. As vampires spread throughout the world, other governments formed their own versions. The back story of Department 19’s creation as well as certain key missions is layered via flashback chapters throughout the contemporary action of the book.
That contemporary plot starts off with a bang as our main character, teen Jamie Carpenter, watches as his father is shot dead one night in their front yard by a group of blacksuited special ops kind of guys. The book then jumps two years into the future when Jamie is attacked by a young female vampire, his mother is kidnapped by one of Dracula’s brothers, and Jamie himself is saved by Victor Frankenstein — Frankenstein’s “monster” who has taken the name of his creator (like Dracula, many if not all of the events of Shelley’s book were true).
It turns out John’s ancestor had been Van Helsing’s valet and so his family, including his father, have been members of Department 19 since the start, though John’s father, it appears, had turned traitor and compromised the organization. The rest of the novel involves John’s desperate attempts to regain his mother, his integration into Department 19, and his developing relationships with Frankenstein and the young vampire girl Larissa. Interwoven into the main story line is the historical plot detailing the Department’s creation and more recent past events involving his father’s betrayal.
The action, as mentioned, is fast-paced from the very start; it’s a very quick-reading 500-page book, though Hill does slow things down now and then to give the reader a breather, mostly in the historical chapters. Actually, the historical chapters were some of my favorite parts, I think because they weren’t quite so flashbang with action and teen drama. The plot does have some issues with predictability in places. For instance, the budding romantic relationship between Jamie and Larissa, one I’m not quite sure I buy fully, and certainly not at the speed with which it occurs (always a pet peeve of mine — the “insta-relationship” seemingly inevitably created when two people are put into a stressful day or two). And there are a few problems with plausibility here and there with individual scenes.
A much bigger problem is that readers will figure out a major subplot regarding a possible traitor well before the reveal, which not only makes the reveal anticlimactic but also creates a bit of “aren’t the characters a bit blind/dumb not to see what I see” problem for the last third or so of the book. Much of what happens in that last third is predicated on too many people not seeing the obvious, which makes a lot of the drama seem somewhat forced or artificial. If one can set that aside, then it’s an exciting rush to the end.
The characterization is solid. Jamie himself is a likable character and portrayed in good teen fashion: he’s impetuous, quick to emotions, can make bad decisions, etc. His skills are too preternatural for me — he steps way too easily into being the role as Department 19 agent, not to mention into a commanding role.
Larissa is perhaps even better portrayed, partially because she is a bit more complex of a character and more reserved. Frankenstein is a creation with a lot of potential, which I’d say is met sporadically. His age and experience, the rage that seems to lie just under the surface all the time, his loyalty to the Carpenter lie, all create a sophisticated and complex character, and his relationship with Jamie grows nicely if a bit too bluntly. There a bit too much telling rather than showing when it comes to many of the characters, or showing a bit too obviously (looks whose meanings are spelled out for example), but that’s a minor problem.
The vampires, as one character makes clear early on, are as varied a lot as regular humans. Some eschew feeding on humans entirely; others are ravening monsters that revel in torture and mayhem (there are some gory deaths in here — something to keep in mind for very young readers). And even the “good” ones are horrific when “the hunger” is upon them. These are not sparkly folks.
Department Nineteen resolves a major arc in the course of the novel but clearly leaves room for a sequel, and the set-up obviously leaves lots of room for a series of sequels. It’s a fast-moving, interesting opening book with likable characters and a rich backstory and most young adult readers will speed through it and end wanting more I’m guessing. Recommended for young adults, with a few reservations for the very young due to gore and violence and possibly older (high school) readers who may find the plot a little too predictable.