But occasionally, occasionally, something will come along, and my attention will get picked up. It's not often, and I figure it's the reaction to a combination of things, not the least of it being that change in reading habits is good. And with the Atrocity Archives, I was aided by a pretty cover, a cool title, and a excerpt of the first five pages that grabbed my attention despite the first line of 'green sky at night; hacker's delight'. Click, then scroll down the page and you will find the excerpt here.
The Atrocity Archives is actually two pieces, the first being the small novel 'the Atrocity Archive' and the second being the novella 'the Concrete Jungle'. Both stories feature the droll, wise cracking narrator, Bob Howard, who works for the secret British organisation, the Laundry, and is supported by bureaucratic cast who, occasionally, sound a bit similar. However, the Laundry exists to stop people from bringing in nasty monsters and destroying the world through mathematics, which is possible because of Alan Turing, the supposed Father of Modern Computer Science, completed a theorem that allowed people to begin poking around in other dimensions. Bob, who is frequently armed with a Hand of Glory, is sent out on field missions that see him living an exciting and colourful life through math, which is more than anyone else would probably say.
Anyhow, to start on the bad, I'll say straight out that 'the Concrete Jungle' isn't very good. It's an interesting idea about cameras boiling you, but it's poorly executed in that it has virtually no suspense, which you think would be a given for a story where the idea that someone is watching you through any camera... and it suffers from the central character getting out of things too easily, usually with the aid of another character just showing up. It also suffers from what I figure might be a bit of a classic Stross style choice, where the author (Stross) cuts away from the more interesting scenes that the narrative hangs on, and gives us something of less importance, or has it relayed to the reader in a later scene, minus the suspense. At times the story feels a bit rushed--especially in the middle, where there is a two page scene of dialogue without any character name mentioned. The story had a lot going for it, but it just wasn't executed in a successful manner.
But the main focus of the book is 'the Atrocity Archive', and for the weakness that is 'the Concrete Jungle', the former well and truly makes up for it. It does suffer from moments when Stross cuts from what would be an interesting encounter just before the encounter happens, and then we learn about it later. This is done either through Bob being knocked unconscious, or Stross simply cutting away. Outside those problems, the story follows bob, newly made into a field agent for the Laundry, getting himself in trouble because of a girl, Mo, who evil Middle Eastern like men want to sacrifice, so that a bunch of old Nazi folk can come roaring back into the world. Well, kinda. The plot isn't that simple, but to talk about it too much would be to give it away. It does, however, feature Nazis.
(In many ways, actually, 'the Atrocity Archive' follows a certain line laid down through the Hellboy comics. Maybe it was just me, but I felt my Hellboy button pushed a couple of times during the book, and was always a little let down that Stross never went for the big, pulp, splashy violent fight that Hellboy always ends up in. Which, I guess, is my way of saying that if you like Hellboy, you might like this, and if you liked this, then how come you haven't read Hellboy?)
And let's face it, when people bring in Nazis, you either laugh or go with it. I find it helps when Nazis come with Lovecraftian monsters.
The style of the book is that of a spy thriller, and while it never really generates the suspense of something like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it moves along quickly. My attention wavered a bit when the characters sat around and swapped technical speak and info dumped to one another, but those moments were relatively minor, and were well covered by the humour involved in office politics of the Laundry, where Bob is sent off to courses to learn who to treat people better on foreign soil after his failed mission. And Bob is, really, quite a fine narrator, and it's a testimony to Stross' work that I was willing to keep reading 'the Concrete Jungle' despite it not working for me.
The Atrocity Archive hits a series of excellent final scenes on a dying planet, full of frost and stars turning red, and this part of the novel is worth the price of admission alone. It is, somewhat, a shame then, that the ending is really quite weak, and smells faint of deus ex machina.
However, that doesn't mean the book isn't worth buying. It is. I enjoyed myself. Had a good bit of time, and if this kind of book strikes your fancy, worth the check out, I say.