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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity Archives was Charles Stross' first novel, and the book that Jennifer Morgue follows.

When I read that it was Stross' first published novel, I set my expectations a little lower, but I shouldn't have. The novel blows me away. Rather than being a James Bond pastiche, this novel deals with the Bob Howard character in his native capacity as a technomancer, to use a hybrid term. As a bored system administrator in the Laundry, he asks for an attempt into Active status so he can do field work. The worst happens when he is finally given a chance --- it turns out that he has a knack for keeping cool when all hell literally breaks loose, and he is good at his job.

So when he is given another easy follow-up assignment and the damsel in distress is kidnapped, he follows his instinct and gets into deep trouble. The Laundry then tries to use his new-found love interest, Mo as a bait, and discover that things are not as simple as even the Laundry thinks it is.

I am blown away at how much better this novel is, even compared to Jennifer Morgue. Bob Howard isn't kept entirely in the dark the whole time and is in control, so you are not left wondering why he's a protagonist at all. The inter-departmental rivalry is fun, and as always, all the references to geek culture.

The Golden Gryphon press edition of this novel includes a second Bob Howard short story, The Concrete Jungle about an internal affairs investigation (also incredibly well written and interestingly put together), and an after word by Stross, an analysis of Spy fiction and Horror from his perspective (I think that his perspective is warped, but since I love his fiction, I'm glad it is warped in this particular way).

Some people do world building by drawing maps, putting together new cultures and languages, and then showing them to you. Stross does it one step better: he synthesizes a world out of everything we already know, putting together a gestalt from shared culture, and then providing a narrative thread that not only shows it to you but also grants a rollicking good time.

If I were to bring The Atrocity Archives onto a 12 hour flight, it would have been no problem. Sure, I'd read through it once in 3 hours, but then I'd probably spend the next 9 hours poring through it, looking for references I missed and stringing it all together one more time. Needless to say, this novel is highly recommended.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Terrific! I received The Atrocity Archives last night and couldn't put it down until I was done. I found it enjoyably light compared to, say, Singularity Sky: linear narrative, straightforward main character who explains everything (except for the hacker background vocabulary).

As "math = magic, hacker = wizard" fantasies go, I appreciate that Stross hasn't made his world too seductive -- the horror elements balance out the lure of hacker power fantasy. I could aspire to Bob's decisiveness and unflappability, but I wouldn't want to live in his world.

The Concrete Jungle didn't work quite as well for me, but it probably suffered from being read immediately after The Atrocity Archives, at one in the morning.