Book Review: The Atrocity Archive
Well, I’ve just finished reading Charles Stross’s espionage horror book The Atrocity Archive, which contains both the titular book, as well as a semi-short story sequel, “The Concrete Jungle”. Overall, the book is a very enjoyable work of fiction for those interested in semi-Lovecraftian horror, dark bureaucratic comedy, and/or espionage fiction.
The main character of the book is Bob, an employee of The Laundry, a secret branch of the British government tasked with containing things that go bump in the night, as well as the knowledge of such things, for the sake of all society. The organization is very much a combination of the BPRD from Mike Mignolia’s Hellboy series, John LeCarre’s “The Circus” from the George Smiley books, and the nameless corporation from Scott Adams’ Dilbert strips. They’re tasked to save the world from nasty creatures older then the universe, but God have mercy on your soul if you order too many paperclips, because the accountants won’t.
Bob himself is neither James Bond, George Smiley (or any of the poor bastards who get sent out on assignment by Smiley), nor Hellboy. He’s more Shawn (from Shawn of the Dead) with a side of Dilbert. He’s a nice guy, whose computer savvy (that’s what got him in this mess), and wants to do the right thing, but who can really handle himself when the shit hits the fan (and with Murphy being the wonderful guy he is, it usually does). It just happens that he works for a organization where the workload can literally be a killer.
I really can’t get too much into the story, if only because I really want to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say that Bob starts out as being a tech guru for The Laundry and ends up doing field work. Unnamable Beings From Beyond Space And Time ™ and a pretty girl end up getting involved, and the universe is imperiled. I’ll just leave it at that.
The characters in the book are very nicely written, and are all very memorable, from Algerton – the badass-in-a-George-Smiley-kinda-way head of the Counter-Possession Unit (who I could totally see being played by either Christopher Lee, Hugh Laurie, or Peter Firth), Andy – Bob’s direct supervisor once he starts field work, Bridget and Harriet – Bob’s nasty immediate supervisors before he ends up doing, field work, Mo – the aforementioned pretty girl, and Pinky and The Brain – Bob’s roommates, are all extremely memorable characters with their own interesting personality (with the exception of Bridget and Harriet, whose personalities are extremely similar, if not identical).
The story is very nicely told as well, with whatever exposition is needed being provided very concisely, and never really feeling like a dry, boring, infodump. *glares at his copies of the Honor Harrington series* Nor does it fall into any of the obnoxious cliches that some Urban Fantasy/Horror books tend to fall into – “Science = Bad”, “We Shall Not Meddle In God’s Domain”, “Science is inferior to Magic”, or even “Science destroys magic and vice versa”. All of this is a nice change from the past few urban fantasy/horror books I’ve read (notably the Bedlam’s Bard/Bardic Voices series by Mercedes Lackey and the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher).
The book’s weakness though is the short story, “Concrete Jungle” that follows the titular novel. For starters, it really doesn’t stand up on its own, at least not well – more like that one guy at the bar whose had a few too many, but still, somehow, can manage to get around under his own power. Many of the characters return from the novel, even if only in cameo appearances, if you haven’t gotten any background on them from the first book, you might not get why Harriet and Bridget are on Bob’s back when he’s actually working for Andy (unless you understand the concept of Matrix Management). Also, the exposition changes tone between books, particularly early on, from the “quick explanation of what you need to know” style from the novel to a “reading somebody’s written account” style, ala Bram Stoker’s Dracula or even some of the works of HPL. It’s telling instead of showing, and feels a lot like padding. Now, we’re getting this information as Bob’s reading through a dossier supplied to him by Algerton, but it drags things out, and more then a few times I found myself skimming the material – especially since some of the material in those documents (not all of it, some of it) is a major red-herring. Fortunately, the story does pick up later on, but the first part of the story drags horribly.
All in all, The Atrocity Archives the novel, is an excellent work of horror and thriller fiction and definitely worth reading. The short story “The Concrete Jungle” on the other hand, drags some, but not so much that it becomes a deal-breaker that would make the book containing works unreadable. I heartily recommend this book.