San Francisco Chronicle Review

Spy with no fashion sense battles the supernatural

In the new film adaptation of Casino Royale, James Bond has been reimagined as nasty, blondish and short. In The Jennifer Morgue (Golden Gryphon; 313 pages; $25.95), his follow-up to The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross gives his readers a British super spy with a long-term girlfriend, no fashion sense and an aversion to martinis. What's more, disaffected information technology specialist "Bob Howard," as he's known, mixes computer savvy with firsthand experience battling supernatural entities from another dimension.

Sent to the Caribbean by his superiors at the Laundry, Britain's ultra-secret department of occult intelligence, Bob finds himself paired with Ramona Random, a devastating blonde who may not be totally human and whose lovers inevitably wind up dead. Their mission is to make contact with billionaire software entrepreneur Ellis Billington and find out what he's planning to do with an impossibly old artifact lying dormant on the ocean floor. Fearing that he's running a gauntlet of double and triple crosses, Bob must find a way to maneuver his way out of a spell that binds him to Ramona while working to prevent the destruction of humankind at the whim of the ghastly Old Ones.

The Atrocity Archives mashed up the droll tone of Len Deighton's early-'60s Harry Palmer novels with the hysterical cosmological dread of H. P. Lovecraft. The Jennifer Morgue can't quite match the kick of delicious cognitive dissonance the first book provided, but it's still a worthy sequel, especially if you've sat through every Bond film, from Dr. No to Die Another Day. Stross, the author of Accelerando and Singularity Sky, packs this new novel full of hilarious in-jokes and frenetic set pieces, from underwater fight scenes that top anything in Ian Fleming's Thunderball to a villain who makes Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Thunderball's villain, look like the voice of sanity. The Jennifer Morgue takes a little too long in arriving at its explosive showdown, but Stross can be forgiven for the slightly uneven pacing. Even the best Bond adventures have their longueurs, and Bob Howard and crew ultimately deliver a narrative climax that matches anything Ian Fleming could have envisioned.

— Michael Berry, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, January 21, 2007


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