Review: The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross
Ace sent me a copy of this to review. The geeky enthusiasm which follows is my own.
One of the first formal reviews I ever published online was for the first book in this series, The Atrocity Archive. I’ve striven since to capture the same tone as that review (which I like), while fleshing the content out a bit more (with this I struggle). I was and still am enamored by the “math == magic” at the core of the series, but when I read all the material on the Jacket of The Apocalypse Codex I got intrigued by more than just the computational demonology.
“I”m bluffing, but I can look it up on Wikipedia later.” -Bob
I’m not that knowledgeable about spy fiction and so the name Len Deighton didn’t mean anything to me when I saw it in the Acknowledgements of The Atrocity Archives. But it turns out that Stross is embracing the style of other writers, one for each book. From The Fuller Memorandum wikipedia article:
Where The Atrocity Archives was written in the idiom of Len Deighton and The Jennifer Morgue was a pastiche of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, The Fuller Memorandum is a homage of sorts to Anthony Price’s Dr David Audley/Colonel Jack Butler series of spy thrillers, and features two minor characters named Roskill and Panin, names which appeared as recurring characters in Price’s series.
I love this idea and it makes me want to track down some books by Len Deighton and Anthony Price.
I was also wondering what author might be getting the laundry treatment this time. I found the answer on Stross’ Blog: Peter O’Donnell. Again, the name means nothing to me, but according to wikipedia, he’s “best known as the creator of Modesty Blaise, a female action hero/undercover trouble-shooter/enforcer.” That seems to track with the jacket copy, “…External Assets dispatches the brilliant, beautiful and entirely unpredictable Persephone Hazard to infiltrate…” This series is a literary mash-up that, if it does what it sets out to, will introduce readers to a great group of writers while providing a rollicking fun adventure in its own right.
Stross likes to play with point of view. Rule 34 and Halting State use 2nd person for distinctly different reasons. At the start of The Apocalypse Codex, Bob Howard (protagonist) is established formally as an unreliable narrator:
If it happened to me, I’ll describe it in the first person … If it happened to someone else I’ll describe it in the third person… And if there’s something you really need to understand … I’ll [use second person.]
Bob tells us that in the prologue and then we’re dropped immediately into a 3rd person section. A caper in a castle introduces Persephone and Johnny. After this action packed intro, the pace slowed to a crawl for a good chunk of the first third, however it moved along and a good clip after that point. We’ll see just as much of Persephone and Johnny as we see of Bob over the course of the book. I both wish Bob got more screen time and that I learned more about Persephone’s back story.
In spite of missing a few books in the series, this one held up quite nicely on its own. Persephone tends toward more traditional methods of using magic. Bob was quite clear in the Atrocity Archives that this can drive the unprepared or careless quite insane. I get the impression that the contrast between old school and technological magic has been explored in the volumes I missed. Bob still Macgyver’s up some fun technological magic, but he also converses directly with the insanity to great effect.
The bulk of this story was a hard one to flat out enjoy because of it’s massive antagonism toward Christianity (and all religions for that matter.) Stross does a great job setting up an organization that looks like a slightly wacky cult on the outside but gets darker and ickier the deeper you delve. This entry in the series seriously (for a certain definition of serious) explored the issues of living in a universe where the only supernatural forces are dark and scary. Having drawn the connection between math and magic, the worldwide technical infrastructure will eventually summon something apocalyptically scary and everyone in the know is trying to find a defense.
The super spy, Persephone, gives us a glimpse of what Bob is being trained to be. The bureaucratic fumbling over Bob’s designation as middle management, handler, etc awkwardly fits the series but I found myself aching to see everyone in action at their full potential. Mostly I got what I wanted. I was a bit surprised that the conflicting goals of the British and American intelligence agencies managed to be one of the meatiest parts of the book.
Bob’s accelerated training is a big part of the British defense against the future and it’ll be interesting to see how Stross handles the inevitable “hell on earth” he’s forecasting. He does a great job with his central characters and the bits of insanity they encounter, but there’s a distinct fog of war hovering over the rest of the world these stories are set in. This was a VERY fun read in spite of the road bumps and definitely makes me want to fill in my gaps in the series.