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'The Atrocity Archives' by Charles Stross a fun genre hybrid

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'The Atrocity Archives'

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The Spokane County Library District (SCLD) regularly adds new books from just about every genre of fiction and nonfiction it is possible to imagine to its Digital Downloads collections. SCLD provides patrons in much of the Spokane area and neighboring communities who own ereaders or use ereader apps on their computers, phones or other devices, with an embarrassment of riches they can check out from any place where they have a working Internet connection.

Among other recent additions are the first three books in the Laundry Files series by the Hugo Award-winning science fiction and fantasy author Charles Stross. The Laundry Files novels and short stories mash up horror and fantasy elements with suspense novel tropes to create a world where British spies have to occasionally save the world from creatures described in H.P. Lovecraft stories when they aren't chasing terrorists or keeping computer hackers from conducting dangerous experiments with magic.

One of many interesting facets of Stross's series is that magic is strongly linked to certain types of mathematics, so magic spells can be triggered by something as seemingly innocent as a fractal screensaver on somebody's desktop PC. Hackers in the Laundry Files universe often build devices that allow them to summon demons or conduct other illegal magic experiments that may attract the British government's attention.

The series starts with a really fun novel called "The Atrocity Archives." The book's unlikely protagonist is lowly Information Technology expert Bob Howard. He has been forced to work for a secretive agency known as the Laundry and spends most of his days either dealing with frustrating co-workers or keeping obsolete computers running. Bob eventually reveals that the Laundry has good reasons for things such as not using more up-to-date operating systems and obsessively keeping track of how many paperclips people use. At first though, it just seems like he has the worst office job in the world as he deals with soul-crushing levels of paperwork and boring meetings. These portions of the novel will probably seem hilarious to anyone with a computer background, but the humor still works even if the reader doesn't understand all the technical jargon.

Bob's normal routine of dealing with his terrible job (which he is not allowed to quit) and living with his weird roommates Pinky and Brains is disrupted as he starts going on field missions. This is not as crazy as it might sound, because Bob is one of those hackers who got in trouble for using magic. He refers several times to an incident when he almost destroyed London by accident. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that Bob is surprisingly good at dealing with supernatural threats. Partly, that is because he gets a lot of practice dealing with unintended consequences of his roommates' magical experiments and partly because he is able to keep calm in situations where hostile creatures are trying to eat him.

Much of the humor in the novel comes from the fact that Bob is in many ways a terrible spy, but yet somehow he has the right skill set to save the day repeatedly over the course of the story. They won't trust him to carry a firearm and a simple mission in the U.S. goes horribly wrong, but somehow Bob keeps triumphing over the forces of evil with nothing more than his wits and a really cool personal digital assistant (PDA) that is also a powerful magical device with a variety of useful functions.

Along the way, Bob meets a scientist named Dr. Dominique "Mo" O'Brien and recruits her into the Laundry. Bob has to save Mo from the forces of evil several times, but she is invaluable in figuring out all the details of a crazy plot that may result in creatures from another dimension destroying all life on earth. Mo and Bob eventually start dating, so it is fun to see their relationship develop at the same time that they figure out how to be secret agents together.

At one point, Bob and a crack team of British special forces operatives have to rescue Mo from an alternate world that was destroyed by those creatures. Nazis had found it first and established a secret base there. They even went so far as to use a powerful laser to carve Hitler's face on the moon. Bob and the soldiers use a mixture of high-tech gear and sorcery to survive in extremely cold conditions and fight monsters. This portion of the novel is harrowing and suspenseful, but Bob's distinctive first-person narration somehow keeps the tone fairly light in spite of all the nightmarish things he sees during the mission.

The whole time Bob and Mo are trying to save humanity, Stross keeps adding doses of workplace comedy to help keep the book from wallowing in soul crushing darkness. Bob's biggest obstacles he needs to overcome are a couple of anal retentive managers who don't like him neglecting his regular duties while he is away from the office. Much of the tension in the novel comes from things such as Bob having to justify how he uses his flextime hours or getting chewed out for not filling out the correct paperwork. Somehow, this seems every bit as scary as the hungry creatures intent on eating the world. Bob also has to deal with a boss who sometimes kills people who annoy him and keeps their shrunken heads as souvenirs and the downright frightening Auditors who do things such as using magic to force people to admit to stealing office supplies.

People the greater Spokane area who enjoy both spy stories and the urban fantasy genre will probably love "The Atrocity Archives." The novel is a heady brew of pop culture references, plausible conspiracy theories, odd humor, a really interesting approach to magic and suspense elements patterned after the novels of Len Deighton. It is much, much better than this review is probably making it sound. The book isn't for everyone, but the people who enjoy what Stross tried to do with his genre mash-up will really love it and want to continue with the next two books in the series.

"The Atrocity Archives" is available online from Barnes and Noble and other retailers. The paperback edition is also available from Spokane-area retailers such as Auntie's Bookstore.

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