Saturday, August 16, 2008

(Insert clever title about cleaning here) with the Laundry!

A while back I mentioned that I was reading The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross. That was the first novel dealing with The Laundry, a secret British agency dealing with threats to national security that fall on the more...esoteric...side of international espionage. And by esoteric, I mean "squamous and rugose", nudge nudge wink wink.

Since that time, I have also polished off the second novel in the series, The Jennifer Morgue (including the story "Pimpf"), and "Down on the Farm", a short story in the same world, available for free on
So, I figured it was time for a review--so here's a big ol' heaping helping of laundry for you!

Well, my (not really at all) patented 3 word review: Craptons of fun.
My More-Than-Three-Word Review:

First, perhaps a word about the "big idea." The Laundry books/stories are comic/dark fantasy/spy/action thrillers. The general concept is that all the major governments of the world have special secret agencies, blacker than the blackest CIA ops, that deal with security against demons, darkness, and the gibbering beasts from outside of time. They do this because, in the world of the Laundry, math=magic, and as computers=math, playing around with computing can summon up big nasties from other planes. And of course, governments don't like that kind of thing going on without their say-so.

The Laundry is the British version of this supernatural MI6, and the stories Stross has written all deal with a guy "named" Bob Howard, an agent/computer hacker/dark wizard (though the wizard bit isn't at all like you'd imagine) who is dealing with all the nasty business that can get stirred up when people dabble with higher math.
That's why I never studied calculus, people. Math is EVILLLL.

Basically, it's all about mixing tropes--Lovecraftian horror, cyber thrillers, spy novels, and good old fashioned action. The main stories, The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue are actually written with an eye to the styles of famous British authors: Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, respectively.

So, that's the big idea. So what about the stories?

Starting with The Atrocity Archives, Stross has created a persistent world that is perhaps more engaging, and more fruitful, than almost any in the comic/dark fantasy/spy/action thriller genre. Which, you know, might be pretty sparse, but still.

These books are a lot of fun to read, and as you go from one to the next you can see the growth of the characters, the maturation of the writing, and the deepening of the world right before your eyes. Apart from a bit of a boys club atmosphere in the first novel, the characters seem real, and likable, and all kinds of interesting. The plots move right along, and they lovingly play with cliche in ways that make you forget you've seen similar stuff before.

I can't really speak much to the parody/homage angle of the first story because I'm not at all familiar with Len Deighton's work, but the Bond stuff in The Jennifer Morgue is all kinds of cool. And even though it is forced within the story, it never feels forced to the reader. Very smoothly done.

I have only one real problem, and that pretty much evaporates after the initial reading of The Atrocity Archives--Charles Stross brings his vast computing knowledge to bear on the writing of this novel, and I do not share that knowledge. There's enough theorem name dropping to arm a Master's Thesis, and while I like the net, I don't like to take the time to fire up google to see if my novel is making stuff up or if there really is something called a "Dho-Nha geometry curve". Of course, you can still engage in the story and enjoy it without worrying about that kind of stuff, but it comes up. A lot. And it makes you wonder what you're missing out on when you don't recognize 60% of the names you read...or maybe that's just me.

So, in the end, try them out. They're lighthearted at times, thrilling at times, and almost always fun.

That's what I think. Maybe you don't agree. Wanna make something of it? Go ahead, comment.

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