Playing with Plots and Entities From Fleming and the Deeps – A Review of The Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross

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(Warning for major plot spoilers.)

Some stories take a while to pick up speed. This appears to be something of a pattern nowadays in fantasy novels: Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy was slow in the first book, but picked up a significant amount of speed in the second book. Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive opened with what amounted to a (very long) book-length prologue before getting down to actual plot movement in the second. Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne also took a while to gain momentum, with the first book acting as an introduction to the world and characters before the second book set out to make up for the lack of plot in the first book while throwing out more plot for both itself, and the books to come later in the series.

But those are, I suppose, planned delays on the part of the authors, because they already know where they intend to take the story and so are willing to hold back important plot movement in favour of developing the world and/or the characters. Some series, however, start out with an unimpressive novel, but have a sequel (and hopefully, sequels) that strengthen and patch up the weaknesses and holes in the first novel. Unfortunately, these series can be hard to find—mostly because I (and other readers, I suppose) aren’t very willing to give a series a second chance if the first novel proves to be lacklustre. After all, if the first book can’t impress us, what assurance do we have that any subsequent books will be better—especially when there are series out there that can not only come off well in the first novel, but sustain that energy into the later books? My general policy, as a reader, is not to waste time on novels or series that don’t engage me very much, and I’ve tried to adhere to this policy as best as I can. (I make exceptions, however, for truly horrible novels; even if I don’t like them, I try to find it in myself to finish them, so I can report back to the world about how bad they are.)

This was almost the case with Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series. I’d read the first book, The Atrocity Archives, late last year, and while I liked quite a few aspects of it, I was also unhappy with other aspects of it: specifically, the way the female characters were portrayed, and just how closely it echoed aspects of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy graphic novels (though that latter complaint is relatively minor, as only fans of Mignola’s work would be bothered by the similarities—and even then, maybe only a handful). But since I did like some parts of it (the world, mostly—I’m a sucker for anything that can play with the Cthulhu Mythos and spin it around into something different), I decided to give the second novel a shot.

And I have to say, The Jennifer Morgue has turned out to be something I can readily appreciate, with most of the previous novel’s ills somewhat fixed, and with a plot that doesn’t make me wonder whether the BPRD is off doing else more important in the background.

The Jennifer Morgue picks up some years after the ending of The Atrocity Archives. Bob and Mo are now living together and are in what appears to be a stable romantic relationship, albeit one that’s frequently interrupted by weeks-long training sessions; overseas meetings with their European equivalents; and the occasional mission. The novel opens with Bob in Germany, on his way to attend a joint-liaison meeting, and wondering why in the world he’s being made to drive a Smart car, of all things, on the autobahn. As it turns out, however, the joint-liaison meeting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and in no time at all Bob finds himself attached at the hip (after a fashion) to a deadly Black Chamber agent, with whom he must cooperate to find out how they can stop a multi-billionaire with knowledge of the occult from taking over the world.

The first notable thing about this novel is how it takes a clear and distinct step away from the content in The Atrocity Archives—no hint of Hellboy here, for which I am very grateful. It does, however, pay homage to something else entirely: the archetype of the super-spy, as created by Ian Fleming, and embodied by his creation James Bond. The entire plot of The Jennifer Morgue is basically built on the plot that Fleming frequently employed in the Bond novels, and which were also used (with modifications) in the movie adaptations and expansions of his work. The novel introduces the concept of “destiny entanglement”, wherein a person or people can be made to go through the motions of a specific plot by being made to fit into certain archetypes specific to that plot. This has many uses—not least the fact that it can be used as a near-tight security measure to protect not just one’s assets, but one’s plans and activities as well. This all fits in with the way magic’s been interpreted in Stross’ universe, and made for a very interesting and rather fun read, especially if one is familiar with the way the story lines for the Bond movies and books work.

What makes this even more interesting is that the person put into what would be Bond’s role isn’t exactly very Bond-like. Bob is, by his own admission, a geek: he doesn’t like real-world violence (something that showed in the first novel, and which is shown, again, in this one); he doesn’t like killing people; and he doesn’t like abandoning others to gruesome fates if they’re innocent. In fact, his idea of revenge is hacking into another person’s computer system and turning their digital lives upside-down; anything that involves actually physically hurting that person makes him mildly queasy, especially if he’s the one who has to hurt said person. While later on it turns out that he’s not exactly Bond in this scenario, I like how he tries to play the role (or is forced to, rather) even if he does his best to fight against it.

Even more interesting is what Bob reveals about the super-spy stereotype. He is everything that James Bond (as per the novels, and to some degree the movies) is not: he wasn’t born to money, he’s not wealthy, he doesn’t like gambling, and without a computer he’s about as deadly as a bolster pillow. He is the very last person anyone would imagine in the role of super-spy. What he is, in essence, is a deconstruction of the stereotype that Ian Fleming generated via James Bond.

It’s this deconstruction that I liked the most about this novel. Bond is everything a proper spy should not be—if one wants to read about proper spycraft during the era that Bond was in operation, one should read the novels of John le Carré for a more accurate portrayal. Bob reveals the weaknesses of the super-spy a la James Bond just by inhabiting the role, however briefly: his cold-bloodedness, his snobbery, and his misogyny, to say nothing of his destructive tendencies and borderline alcoholism.

Another thing that this novel improves on from the first one is how Mo is written. In my review for the first novel I complained that Mo, for all her smarts and skills, was relegated to the role of Damsel in Distress, which I found most annoying because I felt she had a great deal of potential as a character, if only she’d been given the room to show it. In The Jennifer Morgue, she is most definitely given that room: she goes from Damsel in Distress to Badass of Last Resort, the one Angleton sends in to rescue Bob. She’s also portrayed as being more vicious than Bob, capable of doing things that he might not be able to see through: something Bob remarks upon, and worries about, in the novel itself. Though she wasn’t given a lot of stage time, so to speak, it’s becoming clear that she’s going to have a much larger role in novels further down the line. Hopefully she retains her status of Badass, if not of Last Resort, then at least as someone who can provide the necessary muscle and extra smarts that Bob apparently lacks. I would also appreciate it if she were given some more time to grow as a person, as someone who is not just Damsel in Distress or Badass of Last Resort, but as a genuine human being with feelings and motivations beyond that of Bob and the Laundry.

As for the other important female character, I’m mostly happy with the way she’s been written. Succubi and incubi are interesting entities to play with, especially in the context of Stross’ world, where they are portrayed as demons (in the sense that they’re alien intelligences summoned up via complex and dangerous mathematical formulae from another universe) that possess a host. They’re not necessarily independent entities, but despite this, there are many potential problems with writing a character who’s possessed by such a thing. In his portrayal of Ramona Random, it’s fairly obvious that Stross has tried to avoid the pitfalls when writing such a character, but there were a few moments wherein he’d slip briefly into them before managing to dig his way out. I suppose I’d be more forgiving if there had been one less sex scene, and less insistence on the fact that Ramona was on the verge of falling in love with Bob.

Overall, The Jennifer Morgue is an entertaining continuation of what Stross began in The Atrocity Archives, but with far fewer Nazis and better-written female characters. The kind of magic introduced in this novel was rather fun and as far as one could get from the Hellboy flashbacks I got from reading the first novel, and even better, Mo got to do things she did not get to do in the last novel, proving that she is a force to be reckoned with—a force even Angleton has to tread carefully around. Though it’s still somewhat-problematic, this novel has sold me on the series, and I’ll get around to the next book as soon as I get it.

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