Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

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Book #125: The Hanging Tree (2016)

hangingtreeauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English and a bit of Krio (Sierra Leone creole)
length: 618 minutes (10 hours 18 minutes) including an interview with the author and narrator
finished listening on: 16 Dec 2016
Rivers of London/Peter Grant series 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

I’ve pretty much blazed through this series now, and this book was released only a month ago in late November. Yeah, I’m liking it a lot.

I don’t have much to add to this review that I didn’t already touch on in the last few books. I love the exquisite description that goes into this book, and although this one actually got a bit too fast-paced, I like the storylines. I love the one-liners – I think this time there was a sarcastic quip about the Shard early on that I’d like to have written down, but unfortunately my memory doesn’t last so long.

I like the casual realistic diversity in the cast of characters – in this one, Peter’s sidekick is a Somalian Muslim woman that was introduced in one of the earlier books, and one of the side characters is mentioned to be trans when the police do a background check on her. Or that he always introduces white characters with the adjective white, which a lot of books would unconsciously neglect to do. I don’t want that to be the only redeeming feature, or the only reason that people would read this, but it’s indicative of a book and author that knows where things are at in the world.

I mentioned in the last review that I have a strong suspicion that Aaronovitch writes down the accents of several of the characters just to make the narrator (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) read in that accent, which he’s generally good at, and when I heard the little podcast-style interview at the end of the audiobook with both men (a welcome surprise, I hope more books include stuff like that), I was pleased to hear that that’s exactly what’s happening – and that what’s more, he also gave more specific notes about some of the characters’ exact origins, and gave Holdbrook-Smith a recording of Krio for the short conversation in the middle with the main character’s mother, so that he could get it accurate. I still found this bit difficult to understand – I’m gonna guess that it would be easier to catch if I was reading it in print, like maybe the words would be more recognizable.

Unlike the last story, this one actually advances the plot of the series. But similar to some of the others, it’s not always clear what direction it’s headed in (this can be a good and bad thing). It doesn’t waste time introducing the main police case that the characters are to be interested in, but it switches a couple of times to following another strand. But it gets dramatic later on and there are a few major twists. So it’s a welcome addition to the series.

But now I’m caught up, and it’s like with TV shows when I get into them late: I don’t like the sudden existential dread of knowing I’ll have to wait a year (or probably more) in order to read the next in the series. Perhaps that’s good, though – I can go away from it and come back later. Looking forward to it, whenever it comes!

Book #121: Foxglove Summer (2014)

foxgloveauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 645 minutes (10 hours, 45 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 November 2016
Rivers of London series 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

This is the fifth book in the Rivers of London series about magical constable Peter Grant, and it’s the first one that’s not actually set in London – it’s now been transposed to Herefordshire, where he goes first on a routine investigation of a magician who lives there, and then gets embroiled in the investigation of two missing children.

It’s a welcome change of pace from the other books in this series, and allows the author to do something different with the characters, but it basically doesn’t advance the overarching plot much, if at all. At the end of the last book (big spoilers!) the character of Lesley defects to the other side, tempted over by the big baddie. Here she texts a bit with the main character, implying that she’s spying on him, but doesn’t show up.

I did enjoy a lot of things about this book – I liked seeing how magic fits into the countryside setting, and I enjoyed finding out new things about Aaronovitch’s brand of magic, as usual. I liked the weirdos the main character meets, and I liked that people kept asking him about aliens, as if it’s more of a country thing to believe in.

Similar to before, I liked how Aaronovitch kept naming accents in the book, because it meant Holdbrook-Smith (the narrator of the audiobook) had to do the character in that accent. His Scottish is slipping a bit, but his Scouse sounded alright to me.

Also similar to before, I like that the book has gay side characters. I’m like a broken record with this – but it’s very important to me that this happens more. I like characters who nonchalantly refer to their boyfriends even when I’m not actually setting out to read a gay story, which tend to be niche and not popular.

With the ending of the book (you should probably look away if you don’t want to read any spoilers…), I thought there was going to be a bigger cliffhanger than there ultimately was – the main character gets saved at literally the last minute from having to stay in Faerie Land for ever. I was interested that such a place existed in this fictional universe.

But ultimately this book is filler. It’s good stuff, but I’m waiting for the story to continue properly with the next book, which I think has just come out this month.

Book #111: Broken Homes (2013)

brokenhomesauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English and a bit of German
length: 601 minutes (10 hours 1 minute)
finished listening on: 31 August 2016
others in the series: (1) (2) (3)

Gotta love a bit of serial fiction. This is the fourth book in the Rivers of London series about magical cops, and it had a much stronger story than the last one in the series, let’s just start with that.

This one looks at class in modern London and largely takes place in a tower block that (spoilers) turns out to be imbued with magic. As usual, the characters are sarcastic towards one another and they’re enjoyable to read about, and I enjoyed the narrator’s performance of the audiobook, too – I’m now convinced that a lot of the weird accents that the author puts in the books are just to hear the narrator do them. I think this is the one where the narrator really goes to town with sarcasm when the book describes the inane slogans of the Metropolitan police.

I also liked that this book much more significantly advanced the story than some of the other ones in the series. The big baddie is ever-present, and there’s a really good twist at the very end of the book, so that it’s not just another instalment of Peter Grant’s Magical Adventures. I like that the series is picking up steam, and I’m glad I started it, because it keeps delivering.

Anyone else got this far?

Book #110: Whispers Under Ground (2012)

whispersundergroundauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 617 minutes (10 hours, 17 minutes)
finished listening on: 5 Aug 2016
this series: (1) (2) (3)

This is the third book in the Rivers of London series by Aaronovitch. It’s not the strongest of the bunch – I found its story has blurred a bit with the next book in the series in my mind, and its climax wasn’t as dramatic as before.

This book takes the story into the London Underground, as the characters team up with faerie people to track down mysterious troublemakers. So there are a lot of train themes and motifs throughout the book. We find out a lot more about the lore of the series, compared to the others, where we’re being introduced to it, and still pretty clueless.

The other character, Leslie, is now being inducted as a magician too after a magical accident, so she and the main character Peter are back to being a sexually-frustrated double act, especially as she’s actually better at it than he is. This added a nice level to the story.

The audiobook narrator is also continuing to add an extra layer of realism to the book, and I’d like to commend him for that!

But basically it’s a stepping stone, as the later books (to be reviewed later) are a bit stronger than this one.

Book #105: Moon Over Soho (2011)

rivers2author: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 601 minutes (10 hours, 1 minute)
finished listening on: 7 June 2016

I think I downloaded this one pretty soon after finishing the last one, which made for a smooth transition. This was then the book I was listening to when I went on my long cycle ride up to Gunma (ill-advised when you already have wrist trouble, FYI). Good though it was, I started to lose track after an hour or two – that’s what the featureless roads of Saitama do to someone!

The story of this one is mainly set around Soho, and the author relishes in the opportunity to describe different parts of London in great detail, as he did in the previous book Rivers of London, describing London’s rivers and other regions of that. The main mystery of the plot is a series of unusual deaths all connected with jazz.

As far as I can remember, this is also the book which introduces the main characters’ nemesis, the “Faceless Man”, and discusses Black Magic, although the main character rejects that nomenclature, and prefers “ethically-challenged”, in a decade-too-late pastiche of politically-correct language that was never actually seriously proposed. I did find that on more than one occasion, like the way people talk and act isn’t fully up-to-date. Could that be the intervening five years since it was published? The time I’ve been out of the UK, come to think of it?

There’s not much I can cover in this that wouldn’t feel like a re-hash of the previous review, as it’s basically more of the same. The narration of the audiobook is again superb. I also want to give a shout out to the book series for mentioning the existence of gay people in a casual way, even if it’s a mention of a minor or dead character’s ex-boyfriend, or the scary lesbian sergeant in the police force that the main character has to answer to. If that’s the representation I can get outside things that are aimed exclusively at LGBT people, that’s what I’m gonna grasp to with both hands…

Book #104: Rivers of London (2011)

riversauthor: Ben Aaronovitch
language: English
length: 593 minutes (9 hours 53 minutes)
finished listening on: 25 May 2016

For some reason I kept seeing this in fantasy sections of bookstores and so on for ages, before I actually took the plunge and downloaded it on Audible recently. I’m glad I did.

It’s said to be the story of if Harry Potter joined the Metropolitan police in London, although obviously that’s a gross oversimplification. Some of the same basic elements are there – magic is in fact present in something close to the real world, hidden for hundreds of years by secretive wizards, and the main character undergoes magical training.

The rest is pretty different – the book makes significant use of the London setting and there’s an undercurrent of social issues like race that Rowling never quite managed to properly work into Harry Potter. Rowling seems to like retroactively declaring, for example, that Hermione might be black or that Dumbledore is gay without ever mentioning it in the series, while Aaronovitch comes straight in with a mixed-race main character, called Peter Grant, and lets it roll from there.

The title of the book comes from the various characters who are personifications of the various rivers of London, including a feud between Father Thames, a druid from pre-Roman times representing the upper stretches of the river, and Mother Thames, an African matriarch representing the modernity of metropolitan London, that the main character is tasked with sorting out. It gets weird from there. Needless to say, London as a place is essential to the book, and it’s described very vividly.

Another big difference with Harry Potter is that the mechanisms for producing magic are described in detail, and it’s obviously not just some innate ability whose complications and implications are not really expounded upon much. In fact, the main character tries hard to study magic scientifically, and doesn’t get very far into working out what it actually is – presumably later books in the series will go into further depth with that.

I enjoyed a lot of the characters in the book, and I found that the narrator of the audiobook (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is very skilled with using accents, especially those native to London – which is good when they’re also central to the narrative. It’s important to be able to hear the difference between Peter and his “master”, for example, who has a clipped old-fashioned RP accent. I’m still not sure that people in the real world say “guv’nor”, though – I’ve only ever heard this when there’s some kind of Victorian plot. But I can sort of forgive it here because of all the ghosts and olde worlde plot.

The plot gets a bit weird towards the end, with the introduction of the main mystery plot, which actually isn’t directly related to the Rivers of the title – having concurrent plots like this is a gamble by the author, but he manages to make it work. The ending is good, and develops some of the characters in very unexpected ways. A love triangle running through the book is almost completely smashed at the end for the strangest of reasons, and it works.

It’s funny, it has good characters and a fast paced plot, and it was so steeped in UK culture it made me feel a connection with home again, and I appreciated that a lot. I’d recommend it.