Department 19 – Book Review

department19coverFrom book jacket: When Jamie Carpenter’s mother is kidnapped, he finds himself dragged into Department 19, the government’s most secret agency. Fortunately for Jamie, Department 19 can provide the tools he needs to find his mother, and to kill the vampires who want him dead. But unfortunately for everyone, something much older is stirring, something even Department 19 can’t stand up against…

I read Department 19 at the frequent recommendation of one of my regular teens at the library. His enthusiasm for the series, combined with the first entry’s shamelessly and splendidly Expendables-like cover, led me to expect the best in ridiculous action movie-style epicness. Unfortunately, the book never truly lives up to the anticipated epicness, but it’s still a pretty fun read for readers who are willing to put up with its flaws.

Department 19 follows the classic Teenager Discovers Dark and Awesome Family History and Suddenly Has An Important Coming of Age Adventure plot. In this case, unbeknownst to his family, Jamie’s father was secretly a member of the titular vampire-hunting organization, and his family’s relevance in the organization ensures him an eventual place in it, as is Department 19 tradition. First, though, he has to rescue his mom and earn that place.

The novel is basically an entertaining read. It’s rarely short on action, there are plenty of fun vampire-hunting gadgets and codenames for things (The series’ main weapon is called a T-Bone because it’s a big stake GET IT? xD ), and the story’s world is derived from classic monster literature (Department 19 itself was founded by the main characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Jamie’s partner/bodyguard is Frankenstein’s monster).

Its flaws are mainly found in its structure and characters. One would expect a novel with a cover like this to explode to a start and never really slow down; however, despite most chapters involving an action scene of some sort, the novel’s momentum takes a long time to build, and even then never hits a healthy stride. A lot of this is due to the fact that the novel is actually composed of several different stories taking place in different time periods—Jamie’s storyline, the founders’ and founders’ descendants’ storyline, Jamie’s father’s storyline, and a few random other storylines. None of the stories are necessarily uninteresting, but the way in which they’re interwoven slows the pace down a lot. Sometimes the amount of information gained from the non-Jamie chapters is so insignificant, too, that I wondered why the author chose to revolve a whole chapter and action scene around something that could have been conveyed in a single expository paragraph. A few chapters and even a few characters are introduced in detail only to have no impact on the story whatsoever! Also, most of the characters, while Action Movie Cool, are not very engaging on an individual level, and many of their decisions seem very noodly in logic. Characters switch allegiances and drop plot twist bombs out of nowhere, and near the end it happens so frequently that parts of the climax just make you go WHUT. But then vampires start attacking, and the high octane combined with the fact that these vampires explode gloriously (goriously?) when staked provides enough distraction to carry through the end of the novel.

Another major flaw is that the novel stretches suspension of disbelief a little far. One expects to suspend at least a little disbelief in stories like this, but Department 19 expects readers to believe that, despite his father being somewhat reviled in the organization, Jamie can sass and faux-tough-guy his way into getting Department 19 officers to give him the resources needed to help fight the vampires who kidnapped his mom. The organization does, but it’s in an “UGH, OKAY,” kind of way, which strikes me as highly unrealistic even in a setting like this. I can’t think of any functional government organization that would willingly, much less begrudgingly, bestow crazypants anti-vampire weaponry on a teenager who 1) didn’t even believe that vampires existed until yesterday, and 2) is not very good at acting tough or competent in the first place. Especially when he is stupid enough to run to the aid of a hot vampire girl and not expect her to try to tear out his throat (which also happens). Yet somehow, the novel also expects readers to believe that, after a mere 48 hours of training, Jamie can nearly ace a testing simulation that provides a challenge even to seasoned agents.

Pacing and believability flaws aside, though, Department 19 is ultimately an entertaining read. When taken as individual units, the chapters actually read pretty quickly, and though there were points when I became exasperated with Jamie’s silly heroics and the useless detail, I never stopped enjoying the book. I just wish that it had been written more efficiently.

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