Review: The Atrocity Archives
For anyone who randomly comes across this post, here’s the deal. I’m in a virtual book group. We read books and post our comments about them to a FB group. No, you can’t join.
I started out making just a few notes for that group, but then those notes got too long. So I’ll put all my thoughts about the book here. Just like me to be too wordy for a FB post…
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross: My Comments in 3 Parts
Part 1: Fan Girl
I really enjoyed this book as evidenced by the speed with which I read it. It was light-hearted and pretty accessible. The main character was believable — not likable mind you, but believable. He’s the kind of IT guy who is convinced he’s the only person in the company with a brain. If you don’t know this guy, it might be because you are him.
The pacing was quite good. It reminded me very much of Neal Stephenson, whom the author cites as an inspiration. That he managed to emulate one of his favorite writers is high praise. Many try and fail at this.
I also liked the premise that mathematics can be used to enact various magical portals and summonings. There are technomages out there right now trying to do this exact thing. The author drew good connections between these disparate worlds and really did his homework on different mathematical and esoteric concepts, not to mention a better than passing knowledge of the organizational structure of the Nazi SS.
Fan Girl gives this book an A.
Part 2: Editor
As an editor, I’ve got a couple of issues.
- I don’t like the fact that this isn’t actually one complete novel, but one novella and one short story, followed by his personal writing manifesto as an afterword. Not knowing that in advance, I found the shift between the novella and the short story jarring. It left me spending a few pages trying to figure out if I’d missed something. Don’t confuse the reader. Let them know what they’re getting when they buy your book.
- His tone as a writer, not as the main character, was entirely smug — which just grates the nerves from time to time. I had the sense that he was showing off to me the reader, flashing big words and stringing them together in vaguely plausible ways. Even if any of what is written actually works the way he describes it, the tone made me doubt him, just on principle. Tone it down, Charles. You’re a smart guy; you’ve written a book. You don’t have to try so hard to prove it.
- Whenever he is at a lost to describe someone’s expression, he tries to be clever, coming up with new variations of “she looked at me like I was an X in a Y”. However, not all of these analogies actually hold up. Ex: she looked at me like I was a fly in her coffee. Hmmm. Is that disgust? Anger? The ennui of dealing with the mild annoyances of existence? That’s the problem when you try to be too clever, you lose the actual information you’re trying to convey in your own love affair with the words.
Editor gives this book a B.
Part 3: Feminist Critic
Oh, girl howdy. This book has frankly all the annoyingly average issues that speculative fiction written by white male authors generally have. Which makes me sad.
There are very few people of color to speak of in the book. Most of the men are not actually physically described at all beyond the occasional reference to the color and steely quality of their eyes. Given this scant evidence, they’re probably white. The men who are described are miscellaneous “Arabs” — so identified by turbans and beards — who are members of a terrorist cell out to summon the dark lords from beyond to help them purge the world of the “white devils” in America and the UK. Awesome and nuanced representation there.
I find it completely unacceptable that a book set in modern, urban London, with side trips to Santa Cruz, CA and Amsterdam would have not one single person of color described or attributed as a full character. There’s no excuse for it other than sheer laziness on the author’s part.
Meanwhile, the white women are described in more typical, unequal detail — what they’re wearing, what their hair looks like — but he’s not doing them any favors. There are two main female characters, both of whom are recruited into the plot by the main character and one of whom ends up as his fiancee. These are clearly “good girls.” The other female characters are the epitome of bitchy, back-stabbing bureaucrats. He pulls no punches in casting any female in authority in the most negative, petty light possible. These female bureaucrats end up as the villains of the second part of the book, literally endangering all of London so that they can get a promotion. In the end, they are made out to be bigger more immediate threats to life than the villains of the first part of the book — Nazi SS refugees. You read that right, he makes two female office workers out to be worse than the surviving members of Hitler’s secret service.
This in and of itself would’t be a crime, the world should be full of female villans, except when you couple it with the rest of the book’s white, male worldview, you get a particularly uninviting read for those of us who are neither white nor male. If he’d redirected some of the effort he put into making up analogies into diversifying his cast, this would be a great book. But he didn’t.
Critic gives this book a C-.
It is all too bad. I did enjoy the book quite a bit and, with just a little work on his part, I would have happily gone out and bought the next several in the series. As it is, I’ll table this one for the next time I’m sick at home and am flat out of other choices.