Review of The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross
The Jennifer Morgue
by Charles Stross
Did you finish The Atrocity Archives and think, “Gee, I liked this magical computational spoof on James Bond quite a lot, but I wish it had been Bondier and spoofier?” Well, if you did, then The Jennifer Morgue is the Laundry Files novel for you.
I didn’t—so keep that in mind when I say things like, “All I wanted to do with my life was read this book.”
I am not a Bond fan. I’ve never had a Bond film marathon. In fact, aside from seeing Skyfall in theatres with friends and (maybe) Casino Royale, I don’t know if I’ve actually watched a Bond film in its entirety from start to finish. I certainly haven’t read any of the books. While the idea of a suave kickass superspy is as appealing to me as it is to the next person, the whole Bond scenario just doesn’t do much for me. I need slightly more self-deprecating and vulnerable protagonists.
Enter Bob Howard. Totally not James Bond. But maybe James Bond?
Although The Atrocity Archive did not hide its allusions to Bond and sundry, The Jennifer Morgue is where Charles Stross truly engages in spoof. However, it’s self-aware, somewhat parodic spoof. The bad guy, Ellis Billington, is trying to raise a sunken wreck from an ancient civilization that might predate—or at least disturbs—the BLUE HADES Old Ones we don’t want to talk about. To keep the governments of the world off his case, Billington activates a “hero geas,” which draws on the power of millions of Bond fans throughout the world to set him up as the evil mastermind. Only a lone British spy sent in to infiltrate the operation and stop him stands a chance—and Billington plans to stop the geas just after the climax where the villain has the upperhand, lest it run to its inevitable and unfortunate (for him) conclusion.
It’s an intriguing way to spoof the Bond franchise while also hanging a lampshade on it. I would expect nothing less from Stross. Despite the fact I’ve seldom awarded his books five stars, he remains one of my favourite writers. Even if his books themselves don’t always work as a whole to impress me, his writing is invariably entertaining and intelligent. Stross has a talent for making the outrageous and fantastic sound realistic. It’s what makes his Merchant Traders series compelling: applying economic theory to alternative-universe interactions. Here, Stross uses his knowledge of economics, history, geopolitics, and of course, computer science to weave the perfect chthonic endgame plot for our Bond-like villain.
Pay attention when you’re reading, because Stross foreshadows with the best of them. Little offhand remarks, say that Billington makes about his cat, turn out to make much more sense in hindsight. I love it when an author throws me off by including something that seems strange or nonsensical, only for the resolution to put that event in a new light. It shows a great deal of control, planning, and execution that you want, especially in a novel as tightly packed as this one.
Unfortunately, most of the characters tend to conform to the Bond character archetypes and are not as well-drawn as I’d like them to be. Ramona, Bob, Mo, McMurray, etc. … despite good attempts at creating tension through devices like Ramona and Bob’s destiny entanglement, I doubt you’re going to meet anyone who said they liked this book for its characterization. This is a plot-driven, adrenaline- and allusion-fuelled joyride. Like it on those grounds, or leave it.
And the truth is, I didn’t like this as much as The Atrocity Archives. Despite being full of action, there are scenes just full of exposition and the most boring manner of infodumps possible—I wanted to reach through the page and strangle the people having these conversations. Yet whenever I had to put the book down—because real life sucks and tends to interrupt me when I want to read—I couldn’t wait to return to Bob’s adventure. That is a pretty high compliment to pay to a book, I think, right up there with “I want to read it over and over” and “I would like to have this cover tattooed on sensitive areas of my body” (neither of those applies to The Jennifer Morgue).
This novel continues the trend Stross began in the first one of a healthy blend of urban fantasy, modern technology, and computer science. The Atrocity Archives got me because, as a mathematician and a programmers, I love the idea that doing higher-level mathematics could let demons possess you. (It would explain a lot.) It appeals to my belief that math allows us to understand and even affect the universe in a very profound way. The Jennifer Morgue explores this a bit more. We have magical distributed surveillance, thanks to creative marketing, and Bob enjoys pwnz0ring the yacht’s computer network through a PC media centre. So there’s that.
This edition came with a bonus short story, “Pimpf,” at the end. I did not like it that much. But, hey, bonus short story! I want more novels to do that…. I could have done without the semi–self-aware afterword though.
Basically, if you liked the first book, you are going to like this book a little more or a little less, depending on how much Bond you want in your Brit. If you didn’t like the first book but were on the fence about it, then try The Jennifer Morgue anyway, because the plot or tone is different and might appeal to you more. In general, I think I like the series more for the ideas Stross invokes than the actual stories—but they are good enough stories that I can enjoy them as the diversions they are while Stross hacks my brain.
I’m going to go reboot now. Praise shoggoth!