Book Review – The Laundry Files

The Laundry Files series

by Charles Stross

The Atrocity Archives (2004)
The Jennifer Morgue (2006)
The Fuller Memorandum (2010)
The Apocalypse Codex (2012)
The Rhesus Chart (2014)
The Annihilation Score (2015)
The Nightmare Stacks (2016)
The Delirium Brief (2017)
The Labyrinth Index (to be published 2018)

It’s a mixed blessing for a fan of an author when that author has a really good series of stories that happens to be rather open-ended. There’s always the chance for another entry in the series, but you feel compelled to read them all. And there’s the problem that the stories might have a specific order in which they should be read. Miss one, and you lose a lot of background information in the next. Or the author has to keep adding annoying infodumps to fill the reader in.

With his “Laundry Files” stories (the above-mentioned novels, plus a handful of shorter works), Stross has managed to avoid those problems for the most part. While the order given is both the order of publication and the order in which the stories take place, they can be read and enjoyed separately. A couple of the later entries (Score, Stacks, Index) even center on side characters.

Speaking of which, the main character is Bob Howard, an office flunky in Britain’s secret government agency that deals with the “occult”. Thanks to being in the right place at the right time (though to Bob, it’s the wrong place and wrong time), he rises quickly through the ranks to become the de facto head of the agency.

The central conceit in the stories is that HP Lovecraft was pretty much right. There really are beings like his Elder Gods who are out there in other dimensions, just waiting for the chance to pop across and eat our brains / minds / souls. And a lot of what’s called “magic” works – mostly the sort of stuff that covers demonic possession and mind control. Since many magical “spells” can be reduced to mathematical formulae, you can do it with computers, too. Stross adapts his magical realism to include things like vampires, superheroes, and elves. It all works in a logical and consistent manner.

The series probably grew out of a short work called “A Colder War”, published in 2000.

That novelette is rather dark; Stross lightened things up in Atrocity. There, Howard deals with apparently silly bureaucratic rules and Powerpoint presentations that will literally destroy your mind. He consciously imitated the works of Len Deighton, whose spy novels included the boring everyday paperwork of spycraft. The stuff that never makes for good movies. In Morgue, he deconstructs the James Bond archetype of the special agent. I’m going to take a wild guess here and say that those were the only two novels he originally intended to write. But fan response and publisher pressure kept him at the keyboard. Not that any of the subsequent works seem forced, but that their tone is darker. Perhaps it’s that Stross has always mentioned CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN in these works – the eventual “alignment of the stars” that will open up our world to those beings From Beyond that want to eat us (with a big flashing neon sign saying “All You Can Eat Buffet Now Open”) – and each work now has to raise the stakes while never actually getting to that apocalypse.

Fortunately, Stross is a fine enough writer to keep things interesting and moving along. Not only is Howard dealing with eldritch horrors, he’s got management to deal with, as well as crazy roommates, a wife, and an ex-girlfriend – all of whom also work for the Laundry. He’s found and hit a sweet spot combining action-adventure, secret agents, computer geekery, and horror fiction with this series. They’re (mostly) set in Britain, but non-British readers should have no trouble coping with the minimal cultural referents.

If I have a personal favorite, so far it’s Stacks. Stross has an army of warrior elven mages and their dragons (really!) taking on a 21st century military. I’ve read some novels where you see that the number of remaining pages is shrinking, and you’re still waiting for the author to bring things to a conclusion. I can even think of one case where I flipped the last page and saw the words “To Be Continued”. There was nothing on the book jacket copy to indicate that the novel was the first part of an indefinite series! That was the only time I literally threw a book across the room in disgust. I’m getting to the final pages of Stacks, and I can tell how it’s going to wrap up; I’m just waiting for the conclusion to arrive. In no more than a page and a half of text (REALLY!), Stross ended the novel in the way I suspected – indeed, the only way it COULD have ended. I almost jumped out of my chair in delight, saying “Yes! That’s perfect! That’s how it needed to end!”

Anyway, if you get the chance to read one of these stories, don’t pass it up.


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