Charles Stross returns to the world of British occult espionage in The Jennifer Morgue, a sequel to his eccentric, high-density work in The Atrocity Archives (reviewed here). Staying true to form, Stross once again constructs an elaborate parody of genre fiction by simultaneously using and mocking the traditional narrative formula.
The Cover: 94/100
Without question, this is a very fine cover. As a satirical work, it's important to at once respect and lampoon one's source material, and this cover admirably does so with its smooth lines, saturated colors, and cold-war-thriller block print. Perhaps more impressive is that absolutely everything on the cover is relevant to the story contained within: the two mostly-concealed faces, the slutry fish-damsel, the subtle radar-screen motif: all appropriate, assembled with an excellent sense of composition. The cover is pleasantly free of clutter, which is especially remarkable given that the book is a sequel.
After the train wreck cover on The Atrocity Archives, I was pleased and surprised to see such a fine piece of work. May many more follow.
The Book: 77/100
The Jennifer Morgue is, like its predecessor, actually a longer story (of the same title), a shorter story ("Pimpf"), and an essay lumped together into one book. The main narrative makes up the lion's share of the book and is very explicitly a send-up of the classic James Bond stereotypes. Pimpf is weak and forgettable, while the closing essay is quite excellent. For the purposes of this review, I'll assume the story-and-essay caboose cancel one another out and focus on the main storyline.
Stross has written a much more accessible story with The Jennifer Morgue than he did with The Atrocity Archives. Despite being a sequel, the story is able to stand alone. It spends less time dwelling on the "how" of things and focuses on the action. Plus, it's familiar action. While the spy fiction of Len Deighton (the spy fiction inspiration for The Atrocity Archives) may be a bit obscure to some readers, everyone knows Bond. And as Bond goes, The Jennifer Morgue is really quite as good. In many ways, Stross has woven a more plausible story than many Bond has stumbled through, which is saying a lot given that Stross is weaving Lovecraftian cosmic horror along side the traditional fast cars and seductive assassins.
The core problem with The Jennifer Morgue, then, is that it pegs itself too closely to Bond. At the risk of sounding like a snob, Ian Flemming was no Shakespeare, and the Bond formula is both tired and absurd. Without the big-screen action to carry the improbable plot twists, cheezy dialog, and Deus Ex Machinae, Bond falls flat. Credit goes to the author for having found a very clever way of justifying the absurdity of Bond within the framework of the story (a plot device that, for the sake of future readers, I won't spoil), but in the end it's still a Bond plot, and as a result the story seems at times to ride on predictable rails toward its conclusion.
To die-hard Bond fans who also enjoy the works of H.P. Lovecraft, it's hard not to recommend The Jennifer Morgue. But to seasoned readers who make effort to avoid the less intelligent pulp, I fear Stross may have chosen to lampoon the material sufficiently closely that the resulting book isn't quite as good as it could have been. It's still plenty enjoyable, but it isn't quite as brilliant as his earlier use of these characters.