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Will Hill's Department 19 by Lou Morgan

Department 19 Will HillLet's do a little visualisation exercise.

Ready? OK. Let's go.

It's early 2011, and you're in a bookshop. You're looking for something to read... what? Oh. Yes. Good point. Why else, indeed. Moving on... You're wandering through the Young Adult section. You caught the end of a vampire film on television last night, and you're in the mood for something with a little bite - but that's good, because you heard that vampires are big in YA right now.

You scan the shelves. There's high-school vampires, secret vampires, sibling vampires. Vampires-in-training, love-triangle vampires, sparkling vampires...

And there's Will Hill's Department 19.

The book opens with 14 year-old Jamie Carpenter seeing his father gunned down outside the family home in strange circumstances: circumstances which are soon explained to Jamie as his father's involvement in a plot to sell secrets to terrorists. But two years on, Jamie is attacked, and his mother is taken by a man in a suit and with teeth like razor blades... and the cavalry - when it comes - comes in the shape of Frankenstein's monster.

And Jamie's life just keeps on getting weirder.

Drawn into the world of Department 19, a covert Government operation dedicated to protecting the population from vampires, Jamie learns to fight alongside the department's "Operators" - who, in their military uniforms, are either vaguely nightmarish or something McG might dream up (or both) - as he learns the truth about his father and his family's past, and searches for his mother.

Department 19 has, at its heart, a very simple premise: what if the events of Dracula were real... and what happened next?

It's a question Hill goes about answering with relish. Relish, guns and a lot of gore.

The first thing that separates Department 19 from the YA vampire literature we've heard so much about lately is the vampires themselves. These, for the most part, are immoral and utterly monstrous - and rightly so. If you're looking for a comparison, you could do worse than consider Vicente and Marlow from 30 Days of Night, Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith's 2002 vampire comic. The Vampire Diaries this is not.

Despite the physical - often brutal - confrontations between opposing sides, Hill's writing always has one eye on the potential youth of the reader, meaning the violence treads a line: being every bit as gruesome as any teenage boy (or girl!) might hope, but still bearing the lower age limits of the YA market in mind, particularly when it comes to possible subtext. His combination of the all-too horrific idea for a young adult of a parent (and particularly for an only boy, his mother) in danger, with classic horror - paired with the kind of action we'd expect from a Hollywood blockbuster - is a winning one, and it's difficult not to get caught up in it.

But to be carried away by the pace of the plot would be to miss something at the heart of the book, and that's the affection Hill clearly has for horror literature; for vampires and the classic Universal movie monsters, and things that go bump in the night. It takes a fan, after all, to finish Stoker's novel then to sit back and ask themselves, "Yes, but then what?" and plenty of space and time are given to exploring this idea, and to developing both the historical world and that of the Department and its headquarters in the "Loop". The narrative jumps from one period to another, building a bigger picture with flashbacks and Jamie's own discoveries as he finds a place in the modern D19.

Jamie, as the protagonist, is the trickiest character to pin down. He's not always terribly likeable... but what 16 year-old boy is? And Hill doesn't give him an easy ride, either, throwing obstacles in his path at every turn. Perhaps it's because of this that he also gives Jamie the greatest asset he could have in Victor Frankenstein: an erudite, intelligent father-figure, still mourning his own loss. Even here, there's the hallmark of the long-time monster-watcher, with a reference to the thorny issue of Frankenstein's name right from the start. Other supporting characters - the teenage Larissa, for instance, or the many D19 personnel - are carefully sketched.

Department 19 The RisingThe historical flashbacks may, to some readers, be a distraction from the contemporary sections of the story following Jamie. However, they're an integral part of the novel, not just bolted-on for exposition, and they're what tie everything together. After all, Deparment 19 is not just a thriller or a horror novel, it's an alternate history too.

The book's action scenes will appeal to its target audience of teenage boys, and they're certainly fast-paced. There's a degree of suspending our belief necessary, given we're asked to accept that a secret, militarised government department would put weapons into a 16 year-old's hands, but... vampires, so. For a top-secret classified agency, the tech doesn't disappoint, ranging from handguns to helicopters via the Operators' "T-Bone" devices, which are essentially stakes on steroids (T-Bone..? Stake..? Ah, yes). What Buffy could have done with one of those...

References and in-jokes are scattered throughout Department 19: it's no coincidence that Jamie shares a surname with a horror director. But they never seem laboured - even Frankenstein himself wading into Jamie's life feels perfectly pitched. Hill loves these stories, the stories of Dracula and Frankenstein, and he wants his readers to love them too. And it's because of this affection, this sense of author-as-enthusiast, that Department 19 succeeds. Hill has written a roller-coaster, designed to sweep its readers along; but at the end of the ride, right before the gift shop and the exit, he's left a door ajar: a door marked "Here be monsters". The hinges would creak, and the corridor beyond, if we were to venture down it, would be dark and full of cobwebs. But beside the door, he's left a torch...


Department 19 and Department 19: The Rising by Will Hill are out now from HarperCollins. If you need more convincing, Will Hill's website has a free Department 19 story.

Lou Morgan writes about, amongst other things, gun-toting angels and her first novel, Blood & Feathers is published by Solaris Books in August this year and her short story, "At the Sign of the Black Dove" can be found in Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse. Squid make her uneasy (but we like her anyway). You can tease her about this on twitter at @loumorgan.