Anwar: As an ex-con, you'd like to think your identity fraud days are over. Especially as you've landed a legit job (through a shady mate). Although now that you're Consul for a shiny new Eastern European Republic, you've no idea what comes next.
The Toymaker: Your meds are wearing off and people are stalking you through Edinburgh's undergrowth. But that's ok, because as a distraction, you're project manager of a sophisticated criminal operation. But who's killing off potential recruits? So how do bizarre domestic fatalities, dodgy downloads and a European spamming network fit together? The more DI Kavanaugh learns, the less she wants to find out. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Okay, so I’ll admit that part of the reason I wanted to read this book was to see if it really was written in the style of an internet puppy. For those baffled by that comment, see Priestgate 2012. However, that’s not the only appeal of the book. It’s a detective story set in the very near future, with minimal but incredibly interesting science fiction elements. It’s also not set in the USA or London, which makes a nice change. The story takes place mainly in Edinburgh, and the culture, the people, the language, etc, were all quite familiar to me, bringing back happy memories from four years at university in Scotland (I was 1 hour from Edinburgh by train). So, lots that grabbed my interest.
The story of Rule 34 is quite unique. Rule 34 refers to an internet rule: if it exists, there is porn of it. In the book, the Rule 34 squad is a police force that watches porn sites looking for evidence of criminal activity, on the theory that all crimes will become fetishised eventually on the internet. Liz, one of the three main characters of the book, is a detective who has been demoted from Homicide to managing the Rule 34 squad. However, when Liz becomes involved with investigating a murder that has sexual overtones, and when this turns into a string of murders and then into a full-on potential serial-killer situation, she is drafted in to help with the case.
I was really in two minds about this book. On the one hand, it has a great concept and one of the best serial-killer identities I've come across, and the mystery was impressively complex and involved. There’s the Rule 34 squad, Liz’s stalled career and love life, murders, a break-away Eastern European republic, connections to Artificial Intelligence, and many more subplots, which are all expertly woven together. The book is very clever, and perhaps a little too clever, as there was quite a bit that still left me baffled at the end. I did really enjoy the ending and thought it was appropriate for the story, but by that point ATHENA’s motivations completely confused me. I also felt that the book may have been over-long, and it took a very long time for me to actually get into it. Once I finally did feel grabbed by the story, I was absolutely hooked and found it compelling reading, but for me it had a shaky start.
I also hated the second person point of view. This switches between three main characters, and just as I would be drawn into the story enough to ignore it, the point of view would switch and I would be jolted back into noticing the second person again. The ending at least provided some context for the use of second person, with a very interesting suggestion as to whose point of view we might actually have been seeing events through all along. But then, Charles Stross has used second person before, so it might just be his thing. Even if used for a good narrative reason, I still found it irritating and distracting.
However, there was a lot that I loved about the novel. I thought Charles Stross did a brilliant job of capturing Edinburgh and Scottish society without resorting to silly clichés, and I also thought his characters were fantastic. They all came to life, and felt like completely different people. No-one spoke with the same voice as anyone else, despite the confusion of the second person style. There was a lot of diversity in the characters offered – a lesbian police detective, a bisexual Scottish-Pakistani Muslim, a mentally ill man, and an Eastern European country trying to combat international crime. Charles Stross seems to have avoided obvious or tired stereotypes at every turn. The main characters in particular were amazing; Liz felt completely real – likeable and human – and Anwar was always sympathetic even when breaking the law or making bad choices. The Toymaker, the most conventional ‘bad-guy’ of the novel had depths to his character that were both fascinating and horrifying. Everyone, even if they only popped up for a chapter, was carefully written.
So, this one was perhaps a bit of a mixed bag. There was a lot to love and a lot that would make me recommend the book, but I would also have to advise readers to stick with it if the beginning seems like a bit of a slog. However, there was plenty about it that frustrated me too, and parts of it, in particular the more technical aspects, still have me confused. But, for its defiance of the usual stereotypes and tropes that come with the genre, and for its excellent characters and complex mystery, I would say that this book is worth a read.