The Jennifer Morgue

While I enjoyed Charles Stross’ first novel from the Laundry Files, The Atrocity Archive, this second outing is significantly more entertaining. This may well say more about me than about Charles Stross.

While the first book, among other things, pastiched Len Deighton, this one picks James Bond as the target for its literary satire and Ian Fleming is a writer with whom I am a lot more familiar. As such, I suspect that, while some of the jokes in the first book passed me by, I caught a lot more of them this time around.

Some agents have all the fun. Others save the world.

Bob Howard is an IT expert and occasional field agent for the Laundry, the branch of Her Majesty’s Secret Service that deals with occult threats.

Dressed (grudgingly) in a tux and sent to the Caribbean, he must infiltrate a millionaire’s yacht in order to prevent him from violating a treaty that will bring down the wrath of an ancient underwater race upon humanity’s head. Partnered with a gorgeous American agent who’s actually a soul-sucking succubus from another dimension, Bob’s mission (should he choose to accept it) is to stop the bad guys, avoid getting the girl, and survive – shaken, perhaps, but not stirred.

Stross is an interesting writer in that he draws from a wide range of disparate influences which he juxtaposes in a manner that is by turns funny, disturbing and often both.

It helps, of course, that the writing and characterisation are so strong with Bob Howard believably and likeably struggling to navigate the bureaucratic insanities with which we are all too familiar. The Jennifer Morgue follows on from The Atrocity Archive and, this time around, everything clicked perfectly into place, making for a story that is both subversively funny and frequently unnerving.

The book also includes a second story, Pimpf, which takes place in the Laundry offices and is about corporate politics, over-enthusiastic interns and online demonic possession.

And everything is wrapped up with an essay on Ian Fleming, James Bond and where the real global villains can be found.

Five More Things

I mentioned Whoops Apocalypse, the TV series, some time ago. At the weekend I finally found the time to watch the film. In this version the plot is updated somewhat to reflect the fact that it was made in 1986 — four years after the TV series — but the humour is still as dark and bitingly effective as an increasingly farcical sequence of events drags the world ever closer to nuclear armageddon.

As a satire made and set during the Cold War, the film is very much of its time and you probably need to have lived through the 1980s for some of the jokes to work. It does, however, manage an accidentally contemporary moment when the US president (played by Loretta Swit) incredulously asks: “You’re telling me that the entire population of Great Britain went and elected a deranged psychotic to the highest office of the land? Again?”

Remaining with the ongoing disaster that is British politics, N Piers Ludlow asks whether the UK ever understood how the EU works. Given that the UK has been a member of the bloc for over 40 years, the conclusion is damning, to say the least.

On a more positive note, Jo Swinson was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats this week and Timothy Garton Ash is optimistic about her chances of leading a fightback for liberal Britain. We live in hope.

Returning to the subject of films, for a moment, Marvel has revealed their Phase 4 MCU lineup and Den of Geek has the details. Ignoring the Disney+ releases — I absolutely am not going to get tied into signing up to endless streaming services — the upcoming Black Widow film is long overdue and I am really looking forward to seeing how they handle Thor: Love And Thunder. Also: Blade is coming back!

And finally, Ian Stewart’s article on social physics reminded me of a book I read some time ago, namely Critical Mass by Philip Ball. The takeaway from both is that you may be an individual but, in aggregate, we are a lot more predictable than we realise.

The Chosen Seed

With The Chosen Seed, Sarah Pinborough brings the Dog Faced Gods trilogy to a spectacular and suitably apocalyptic finale.

First his nephew was kidnapped, now DI Cass Jones has been framed for murder. But he’s about to get help from a very unexpected source. Detectives Hask and Ramsey are searching for the killer behind the lethal virus sweeping through London, which has thrown up clues that Cass might be innocent after all.

Somehow it’s linked to Mr Bright, and to the organisation which manipulates everyone from the shadows. So Cass Jones is going up against The Bank and it’s sinister employees one last time. He needs every ally he can get, and this time he means to find answers. And the more he learns, the more everything hinges on finding Luke…

Although Cass Jones is still the central character and the plot is largely driven by his attempt to locate Luke, his missing nephew, this installment of the trilogy is much more about the origins and motivations of Mr Bright and the organisation he leads. As such the fantasy elements come right to the fore this time around.

It’s not hard to see where things are going and the ending is not a huge surprise. What makes the novel stand out, for me, is the strength of the plotting and seeing how Sarah Pinborough deftly pulls together the various threads into a narrative that keeps you hooked right up to the end.

The attention to detail applies not only to the plot but also the characters, with every one of them fully rounded and each of them displaying a set of motivations that are fully consistent with both the setting and the events.

As with The Shadow of the Soul, the events in The Chosen Seed follow directly from the previous novel with no time taken to recap the earlier events. As such, you really need to have read the first two novels before embarking on this one.

The books are all well worth your time, though, as The Chosen Seed makes for a powerful ending to an excellent trilogy that has, throughout, been both gripping and thoughtful.

The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough

Somewhere around three-quarters the way through this book, I found myself thinking that there was no way that Sarah Pinborough could possibly wrap up all of the various plot threads before the end of the novel and that this second book of the trilogy would end up doing little more than set the scene for the final instalment.

How wrong I was.

There is a lot going on in here but Sarah Pinborough does a superb job of bringing everything together in a manner that brings together the various threads without feeling rushed of leaving too much dangling.

DI Cass Jones is still dealing with the fallout of uncovering a major conspiracy within his own police station when a terrorist attack rocks London and he finds himself called on to help with the investigation. At the same time he has his own investigation to worry about: young people are dying, apparently committing suicide – and they’re all linked by the phrase Chaos in the Darkness, scrawled or sent as their last message to the world.

Then he’s given a note from his dead brother Christian, written before his murder: the three words – ‘They took Luke’ – opens up a whole new can of worms, because Cass knows immediately who They are: Mr Bright and the shadowy Network. His dead brother has set him a task from beyond the grave – to find the baby, his nephew, stolen at birth.

And as Cass tries to divide his time between all three investigations, it’s not long before he discovers links, where there should not be. The mysterious Mr Bright is once again pulling his strings, and there’s nothing DI Cass Jones hates more…

A Shadow of the Soul is the middle book of a trilogy and you do need to have read the first book, A Matter of Blood, to properly understand what is going on. In A Matter of Blood, we were introduced to a near-future dystopia with hints of supernatural horror. A Shadow of the Soul retains the police procedural structure of the previous book but, now that the supernatural element has been revealed, takes the time to delve further into the motivations and methods of the beings of The Network.

We have conspiracies within conspiracies within conspiracies as the central character, Cass Jones (a wonderfully, and believably, miserable individual), attempts to make sense of what is going on around and to him.

While this is the middle book of a trilogy, it also stands up on its own merits as a well contained story. If the series stopped here, I would be reasonably happy but there is a third entry and I shall be reading this very shortly.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

The concluding part of Nnedi Okorafor’s trilogy of novellas is a powerful and often moving tale, packed with well-drawn and believable characters that bring this world to life.

Binti has returned to her home planet, believing that the violence of the Meduse has been left behind. Unfortunately, although her people are peaceful on the whole, the same cannot be said for the Khoush, who fan the flames of their ancient rivalry with the Meduse.

Far from her village when the conflicts start, Binti hurries home, but anger and resentment has already claimed the lives of many close to her.

Once again it is up to Binti, and her intriguing new friend Mwinyi, to intervene — though the elders of her people do not entirely trust her motives — and try to prevent a war that could wipe out her people, once and for all.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novella without posting spoilers for the two preceding installments. Everything builds on what has gone before, locking together to make for a whole that is far greater than its parts. This is a book that knows where it’s going, even if the author doesn’t much care how she gets there.

As a result, this is a story that leaves much unexplained and unexplored. To fully appreciate it, therefore, you need to recognise that author, Nnedi Okorafor, is more interested in using metaphors to discuss concepts than she is in ensuring that every narrative tab fits perfectly in it’s slot.

This makes for a story that is thoughtful and left me mulling over it for days afterwards and a universe to which I would be very happy to return.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

In Binti, Nnedi Okorafor created a fascinating universe that drew on an often different set of inspirations to those usually found in space opera to give us something that felt both fresh and original. In Binti: Home, Okorafor expands on this — both in terms of the society and environment of Oomza University and also the cultural environment from which Binti comes.

The emphasis in this novella, as in the previous one, is very much on the character of Binti and her struggle to develop in the face both of conflicting expectations.

After having left her insular community to become the first member of the Himba to enrol at Oomza University, Binti now returns home. But home is not quite home any more. Binti has seen and done too much and grown in directions that make it impossible to fully fit in with the community in which she grew up.

The Australians have a term, Tall poppy syndrome which describes resentment towards people who are visibly successful in comparison to their peers. It’s a phrase I have seen used within various expatriate communities, specifically in the context of returning home, and it’s a phrase that came to mind several times as Okorafor describes the resentment of family members and the refusal of friends to accept, or even understand, the person Binti has become.

Of course, intolerance works in many directions and, while Binti has to deal with the reactions of those she left behind, she also shares their prejudices against the Desert People who are generally seen as primitive and unstable. It is Binti’s necessary reassessment of her prejudices that form the culmination of this novel, and which sets things up for the third novella in this series.

Binti: Home is an engrossing continuation of the first novella that challenges you to think about the way in which prejudices are unthinkingly adopted. It also ends on the sort of cliff hanger that left me wanting to dive straight into the next novella, Binti: The Night Masquerade.

While this novella suffers a bit from being the middle book of a trilogy, it is a satisfying read that works well in the context of what we understand of Binti’s world. I will definitely be reading the third, and final, book in this series and am looking forward to discovering how Nnedi Okorafor brings Binti’s journey to a conclusion.

The Alleyman by Pat Kelleher

This is the third installment in the No Man’s World series written by Pat Kelleher for Abaddon books. The series is set in 1916 and follows the 13th Pennine Fusiliers, who found themselves explosively transported from the Somme to a horrifyingly alien world. Horrifying being the operative word here — the soldiers very quickly discover that every plant and animal on the planet is out to get them.

If you are thinking that this all sounds very pulpy, you would be absolutely correct. It has also proved to be a crackingly good read. The strength of Kelleher’s characterisation, combined with his attention to detail, keeps everything grounded no matter how far he stretches the plot.

And so to The Alleyman

Four months after the Pennine Fusiliers vanished from the Somme, they are still stranded on the alien world. As Lieutenant Everson tries to discover the true intentions of their alien prisoner, he finds he must quell the unrest within his own ranks while helping foment insurrection among the alien Khungarrii.

Beyond the trenches, Lance Corporal Atkins and his Black Hand gang are reunited with the ironclad tank, Ivanhoe, and its crew. On the trail of Jeffries, the diabolist they hold responsible for their predicament, they are forced to face the obscene horrors that lie within the massive Croatoan Crater, a place inextricably tied to the history of the alien chatts and native urmen alike.

Above it all, Lieutenant Tulliver of the Royal Flying Corp, soars free of the confines of alien gravity, where the true scale of the planet’s mystery is revealed. However, to uncover the truth he must join forces with an unsuspected ally.

You really do need to have read the first two books in this series (The Black Hand Gang and The Ironclad Prophecy) before embarking on this one because Kelleher jumps straight into the action. There’s no recap and no explanation of anything that has been previously explained.

That said, the major characters have started to feel like old friends. I have already mentioned the characterisation and it is this, more than anything, that provides a sense of familiarity that makes it very easy to pick up the narrative, even after a couple of years.

With an ongoing narrative, it’s hard to separate this novel from the series as a whole, and the whole series is well worth a look. If the idea of Edgar Rice Burroghs populating the worlds of HP Lovecrat appeals to you, then this series will be right up your street. Alternatively, if you want a fresh take on a straightforward adventure story, then this is right up your street as well.

The Alleyman is an unashamedly pulp adventure story. But by making it an ensemble story centred on a platoon of WWI, Pat Kelleher avoids the problem endemic in many of these types of story of a square-jawed hero single-handedly defeating a horde. This makes for a narrative that both holds together much more effectively and which is consistently gripping.

As far as I can tell, there are no plans to publish a fourth novel in this series, which is a shame. I, for one, would love to see what the Pennine Fusiliers do next.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

At less than 100 pages, Binti is a very quick read but there is so much packed into this novella that I’m tempted to go back and read it again.

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.

Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.

If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself — but first she has to make it there, alive.

On the face of it, this sounds like a fairly unexceptional space opera. However, by drawing on her Nigerian roots, Nnedi Okorafor manages to look at questions of culture and cultural identity is a way that is (to me) utterly original.

Binti herself is a great character, believably navigating conflicting aspirations and expectations while never losing sight of who she is or where she comes from. This, combined with some wonderfully evocative world building, makes for a thoughtful take on the way in which family and culture can both ground us and limit us.

FERTS by Grace Hudson

Before I started writing this, I took a quick look at the reaction on Goodreads and was a bit surprised at just how positively FERTS had been received. For me, the novel just doesn’t work.

The war is over. Resources are scarce. The population is dwindling in the Forkstream Territories.

Pinnacle Officer Wilcox has created FERTS amidst the chaos, a facility designed to protect the female population from raiding hordes.

Beth 259201, a newly-demoted Epsilon Internee, suspects that there is something more that lurks beneath the carefully constructed order of the facility.

She has a gift, one that could brand her a defective. A novice fighter, she must use her intellect to survive. Her own life, and the lives of many more may be at risk. Will she succumb to the plans in store for her or will she conceal her secret long enough to discover her own path?

FERTS is a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller.

I have the impression that Grace Hudson was trying to write a more overtly post-apocalyptic take on The Handmaids Tale, but FERTS doesn’t come anywhere close to achieving this. A large part of the problem, for me, is that Hudson is too explicit about her world building, to the point that narrative frequently grinds to a halt so that the author can inflict yet another gratuitous infodump on the poor reader.

Not only is this incessant infodumping jarring, but it also has the unfortunate effect of highlighting the extent to which the world, as depicted, doesn’t quite hang together. As a result, I was spending far too much time noticing the inconsistencies and not buying in to any of it.

This isn’t helped by the extent to which the plot jumps from character to character. For much of the story, there is no real sense of where things are going, or which characters are going to prove to be important. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to connect with, or care about, with any of the characters which badly reduces the impact the book is trying to achieve.

And when the plot finally does start to kick in, we have a wholly unjustified superpower that very nearly led me to abandon the book there and then.

Ultimately, FERTS tries to be too many things and juggle too many threads and ends up falling flat in the process.

Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

That was superb. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture.

It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest 5G star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on
this planet so many light years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet.

The book is split into three parts, the first two of which detail the arrival of the starship and the first encounter between atevi and humans. Then we get into the meat of the story, which centres on Bren Cameron, the one human living in atevi society. Bren is a paidhi, essentially humanity’s ambassador to the Atevi.

When Bren finds himself targeted by an assassin, he finds himself shunted from location to location, desperately trying to understand what is happening and who he can trust.

There are two things that really stand out here, the first of which is the Atevi themselves. This is a truly alien race in terms of their attitudes, their instincts and their culture, and this alienness makes them difficult to comprehend and impossible to fully understand. This keeps Bren permanently off balance as his human instincts are consistently wrong.

The other thing to note is CJ Cherry’s writing style. Once Bren is introduced, the story is told entirely from Bren’s perspective — what Bren doesn’t know neither does the reader and if Bren doesn’t understand the importance of something it won’t be mentioned. This approach demands some work from the reader in that there is much that is not explained, but the depth of the story is such that it is well worth the effort.

With Foreigner CJ Cherryh gives us one of the strongest explorations of how cultures interact — and conflict — with each other that I have read in a long time. The novel is complex, detailed and utterly gripping and will probably bear reading again.