Somehow, I missed all the hype surrounding this book, so I went into it not knowing a thing about it. And sometimes I think that is a good thing. No preconceptions, no opinions, no expectations. It's a fresh slate.
Two years ago, the then-14 year old Jamie Carpenter's father is gunned down and killed outside his home. While Jamie watched. Believing his father to have been a terrorist and guilty of treason, Jamie and his mother spend the next two years moving from place to place, trying to deal with their grief and the belief he was a criminal.Friendless and bullied at schools, Jamie is in a dark place, angry at his mother and the world.
Until the night he wakes up in a park after skipping school, and being set upon by a strange creature who is trying to kill him. Vague memories of what happened the night his father died are starting to resurface, and he races home in fear of his mother, to discover she has been taken - and there's another of the strange creatures there in his house, waiting to kill him.
Saved by the opportune arrival of a large man/monster - who he discovers to be Frankenstein - Jamie is taken to a secret place that is called The Dome. And there he finds out about Department 19 - the secret military organization that no-one knows exist. These men and the women are the only thing standing between us and the monsters; we don't know about them, but they save our life every day.
Desperate to get his mother back from the vampires, Jamie embarks on a terrifying journey. He discovers his father's past with Department 19, forms a friendship of sorts with Frankenstein, and finally begins to trust - a bit - the young vampire girl, Larissa, who had tried to kill him that night in the park.
Action-packed and violent, Department 19 had me enthralled. The vampires are truly horrible and scary - none of this sparkly, handsome, misunderstood stuff - they exist to kill and they revel in it. There was actually a few moments in the book that had me quite creeped out.
You do have to gloss over the fact that we have a 16 year old boy, not particularly athletic or much of a fighter, suddenly being able to handle large guns and weapons in the space of a day or two, and being the ONLY one in the whole department of adults and hardened men able to complete a particular training exercise - but you know what, this is aimed at young adults, at teenage boys in particular, and I do think it's part and parcel that the teenage hero have something in particular that makes him stand out. If Jamie had been a hopeless fighter, unable to operate weapons...well, it's not much of a story then, is it? :D
In other respects, I really felt the author "got" Jamie. Here we have a teenage boy, who in the space of one night, has had his world turned upside down - he's gone from being the son of a traitor in a world where monsters are not real, to being the son of secret agent who fought vampires and monsters to keep the world safe and whose mother - the only family he has left - has been kidnapped by the same monsters. Not knowing if she still lived, Jamie feels frustration and despair that Department 19 don't seem to want to find her. At times, Jamie's emotions overwhelm him, and he strikes out - at Frankenstein who is becoming a friend, and at the department itself. Occasionally Jamie comes across as whiny and self-centred, but when you sit back and look at what he is living through, and discovering about his once-normal world, you can understand why.
Department 19 is an ideal book for teenage boys - I mean, come ON! It's got action and fighting and BIG guns and evil monsters - what teenager wouldn't want to read that? :D There is a slight hint of romance between Jamie and Larissa - enough I think, to keep the girls entertained, and not too much to have the boys going "ewwwww!". :D And overshadowing it all, is the vampires quest to find the remains of the legendary Dracula and resurrect him. We get flashbacks of how Department 19 came to be - created by Van Helsing and his companions. And it's the descendants of these people who keep Department 19 running today.
I really did love this book - there were times I was flipping the pages, getting caught up in the action. I enjoyed the flashbacks too - enough action and storytelling there to immerse me deeper into the story, and give me a solid grounding on what Department 19 was. Yes, there's violence and gore, but kids today see all that in movies and more, so I honestly didn't feel there was too much. I would definitely recommend this one to my 14 year old son, and possibly to my 17 year old also (although his reading tastes are far different to this).
And you know what - I think you could have changed Jamie to an adult, and this could very easily be classified as an adult fiction. It's just THAT good.