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book review: the laundry files (complete series)

I have been a fan of Charles Stross’ work for many years. I remember reading Accelerando and liking it once I got my head around it, and enjoying the near-future police procedural books like Halting State but it was Glasshouse and Neptune’s Brood that turned me into an “I will read whatever this gentleman puts out” kind of reader. So it’s a little weird I haven’t read his Laundry Files series.

On the surface this seems made for me. I love the confluence of lovecraftian mythos and modern technology stories. I enjoy tales of rebellious smartasses in confining structures they were not made for but have to deal with. But for whatever reason I never got into Stross’ version of that. Much like my filling the Dark Tower gap last year, I decided to go for it in 2017. I read the entire series in order (mostly) from February to April and put my thoughts in this review as I went. There are a couple of later additions to reviews, mostly to change speculations about my opinions to solidify them a bit. At the end of the review I do suggest my top three stories to read if you don’t want to commit to a seven novel + assorted short works series.

Short orientation: The Laundry is a British governmental department dealing with “things humans were not meant to know.” It turns out the multiverse is leaky and math that looks like magic (and that’s much easier to do with late 20th-early 21st century computing power) can summon tentacly beasts and other malign entities from nearby or far realities. The Laundry tries to clean up those messes.

the atrocity archives

Bob Howard works a desk job for the Laundry fixing their IT systems. He asks to get assigned to active duty and gets to help extract Mo from the United States when her brain’s contents have been tagged as an interesting asset by the Americans. Things happen and Bob saves the universe from a Nazi-summoned energy-sucking entity.

One of the things I liked most about this book is how Bob’s physical solving of problems amounts to figuring out a clever way to call for help and get it there quickly. I wasn’t a big fan of the way Bob’s female superiors were portrayed as harpies worrying about the stupid inconsequential shit while the boys bluffly went off to save Mo and the world.

concrete jungle

In this short story Bob investigates the intersection of a Gorgon effect with the UK’s rampant surveillance camera culture in the middle of a bureaucratic power-play back at the Laundry’s office. Bob’s female supervisors (who were written as loathsome characters) get removed for their crimes and I hope the gendering of nags getting in the way of the serious work done by fun bros will ease up as the series progresses.

the jennifer morgue

The Jennifer Morgue takes Bob Howard and puts him into a Bond movie, but one where the agent we spend the most time with has to deal with an underpowered smartcar and the ignominy of wearing a suit while thwarting a possessed billionaire trying to summon something from the briny depths (in violation of many secret treaties).

I never like plot devices where a character is forcibly attached to another character against their wills so the way that happened in this book gave me a bit of the squicks, but otherwise I appreciated this one. Falling into Bond tropes (despite how unrealistic they are for secret agents) is the driver of the plot but the fact they are Bond clichés is part of the villain’s master plan.

This one also did veer away from the women in power as naggy evil bitches trope, which let me breathe a sigh of relief (I was pretty sure it’d happen since I knew Stross’ more mature work, but am glad I didn’t have any more books of it to sit through).

down on the farm

This short story has Bob investigating the asylum where Laundry field agents are sent when their brains break from their mathematical sorcery. There’s a clever enough “so that’s what’s going on!” reveal but because the story was so short there wasn’t enough build-up or room to complicate it.

equoid

“Equoid” is a short novella about unicorns. But Lovecraftian unicorns part of the larger Shub-Niggurath meme. Bob heads out into the country to check up on a thing and ends up in a tentacly horrific mess. My favourite aspects of this story included the twists to what could have been a very predictable plot, and the specific in-continuity addressing of the role Lovecraft plays in the Laundry Files universe. It’s my favourite of the short Laundry works, and I’d argue the best entry point to the series.

“Equoid” was originally published free online at Tor.com, but I had to go into the Wayback Machine to find the copy linked to above.

the fuller memorandum

In The Fuller Memorandum Bob Howard and his wife Mo O’Brien are dealing with cults. Doomsday cults. Bob’s dangerous boss goes missing and he’s making mistakes so his nice boss is sending him home for stress leave but there are Russians in London and the timeline for the end of the world has been pushed up.

This book got way more violent and darker than the previous ones felt (though I’d say “Equoid” is the most viscerally unsettling of all the stories). Daycares are terrorist targets and there’s a lot of death magic going on. It was fine, but less jokey and fun as Bob is maturing his way up the hierarchy of the Laundry. I appreciate that the evil management of bureaucracy shtick wasn’t focused on a harpy in this book.

overtime

“Overtime” is a short Xmas story about forecasting Ops and the imminent onset of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. The belief in Santa as the walls between realities get weaker is causing a tentacly monster to come down the Laundry’s chimney and Bob, who’s working the holiday night shift, has to deal with it. It is an okay story but nothing special.

the apocalypse codex

The Apocalypse Codex is about infiltrating an American megachurch that has some heretical beliefs (involving waking sleeping gods and putting mind-control bugs in people who don’t buy into the theology willingly). This is also the first of the novels that has Bob in a management role. I appreciated the “learning how to let your team to the job” aspects, though Bob does get to do some stuff himself too.

My biggest problem with the book is the scale of the aftermath. Big things happen to thousands of people in Colorado in this story and I would think dealing with that would be difficult at the least, so I hope it’s not swept under the rug. Stross usually is pretty good about following up on aftermath so I’m not too worried.

The other problem with this book was that there wasn’t enough Mo, and there was a Mo substitute. I understand why the story needed someone other than Mo in the badass superspy role, but that Persephone Hazard was so undifferentiated from Mo made it fall a little flat. The characters in general felt more plot-expedient than actual people, but maybe that’s just familiarity wearing through.

the rhesus chart

I think The Rhesus Chart is my favourite book in this series. Though there wasn’t as much aftermath from The Apocalypse Codex as I expected there is mention of some of those meetings. The great part of this book is that it’s a vampire story. But of course vampires don’t exist. Mo lays out all the ways that vampires as portrayed in fiction wouldn’t work, from caloric intake needs to turning the entire global population into vampires and all of that. But then some high-flying quants in an investment bank become vampires and the story unfolds.

I liked it because the story brought us out of some of the “terrible world shaking doom” rut the main novels could have been settling into; this is actually a pretty personal small-stakes story. I always like “real science” vampire explanations and the “magic is computation” conceit of the Laundry Files led into some interesting work with that. I also loved the banker/vampire-talk. They were using Scrum management techniques and all the buzzwords, because they were just a startup entering an industry where the dominant players were very old and entrenched.

The weakest part of the book in my opinion was the vampire-hunter, though I’m glad she was introduced into the story quite late so we didn’t have to spend much time with her.

the annihilation score

The Annihilation Score is a Laundry Files book about superheroes and policing, but more importantly it’s a Mo O’Brien centred story. After the vampire threat lay waste to the Laundry (and Bob and Mo’s marriage) in The Rhesus Chart, Mo is put in charge of dealing with the outbreak of super-abilities among people who aren’t sorcerors.

It’s about PR and what a superhero uniform looks like, and explaining actions to very powerful government people, especially when there’s a racist super tossing trucks at counter-demonstrators vs the much more powerful djinn summoner hiding in a friendly neighbourhood mosque. Politics yo.

It was good. I found the marriage-breaking-up stuff good and humanizing along with the demon violin infiltrating Mo’s head, but needing it to do her job. Again, this one made management seem like a not-so-terrible thing if done properly, which makes me wonder what I’m becoming.

the nightmare stacks

The Nightmare Stacks is a Laundry Files novel about an alien invasion, but by faerie. This one doesn’t have Mo or Bob in it, and uses one of the vampires from The Rhesus Chart, Alex, as the main protagonist. The Laundry is moving to Leeds and there are prognostications that things are going to go badly.

The faerie are gracile hominids whose world has been destroyed by tentacly beasts and magic (the sort of thing the Laundry is trying to avoid on Earth), who use magical geas as their will to power instead of language. They’re brutal and inhuman and one of their spies with a bit more empathy than her species would prefer gets involved with the invasion (and – spoiler alert – turning it around).

It was fine, but I felt like I’d read this plot before in Stross’ Merchant Princes series. Again, we’ve got knockoffs of the original Laundry characters playing roles that aren’t very dissimilar from what the originals used to be, which makes the originals feel retrospectively thinner and more puppety. I liked how it ended, but the situations weren’t enough to make up for the characters.

series thoughts

And here we are, all caught up as of April 2017. (There’ll be another Laundry Files novel coming out this summer.) I’m not sure it was to the series’ benefit to read them all in two months like this. You can see a bit more of the formula to the series, the strings holding up the puppets, and the repeated explanations of how things work that you remember from the book you read last week.

In general though, I like the books. If I’m recommending the highlights for someone who doesn’t want to plow through the whole array in order, I’d suggest “Equoid,” The Fuller Memorandum and The Rhesus Chart as the three to start with, and then fill in bits afterwards if you like those.

book review: that which should not be

I don’t like reviewing books I don’t like. It feels rude. So I’m not going to rip into Brett J. Talley’s That Which Should Not Be with great abandon.

This is a Lovecraftian tale about a young man at Miskatonic University who is sent by a mentor to find a book in the town of Anchorhead. In that town he goes to a tavern in a storm and listens to tales of horror from world-weary men. One is a Wendigo story, one is a cultists in Transylvania story, one is an Asylum story, one is a nautical ghost-ship/evil tome story. Then the young hero sails around the world and helps prevent Cthulhu from waking.

The thing about this book is that there wasn’t anything new or interesting done with any of those story-forms. They are all entirely old-fashioned in plotting and language. The language emulation leaves out a lot of Lovecraft’s purple prose, but it does use that formalized stiff diction that makes it sound like it was written a hundred years ago. If you have read any Mythos stuff before (really, if you’ve read any horror story from the last two hundred years) you’ve read the same thing.

The big philosophical problem I had with the book was the power of Judeo-Christian symbols in the face of the Mythos. Not to be a huge nerd about it, but these monsters cowering at crucifixes is completely antithetical to how I see the cosmology of a universe including Great Old Ones. There is altogether too much veneration of Christ in these stories to be effective Mythos tales.

I would not recommend this book to anyone but someone completely new to horror fiction.

Note: I received a free copy of this ebook through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.

book review: scene of the crime: little piece of goodnight

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are a pretty excellent team for comics in the noirish vein. Scene of the Crime: Little Piece of Goodnight is a decent detective story about investigating a woman and her family involvement in a cult.

What I liked best about it was how unglamorous the job of being a private detective was, and the reasons Jack Herriman has for working in that life. There are throwaway lines about how most investigations aren’t very interesting, and Jack’s uncle was a crime scene photographer which helps get him information.

I liked the story, and the backup story that’s also included in the trade paperback. The art was sort of ho-hum. It felt like muddy-coloured late 90s Vertigo stuff, which it was (the TPB came out in 2000, I believe). Nothing crazy ambitious here (there’s much bigger and better Brubaker stuff out there), just a good detective story that feels like it could make a good low budget indie movie.

book review: 1q84

Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite writers. I make no secret of this, so take this review with that in mind. I really liked 1Q84 (though I still don’t know how to say the title in English – it’s Ichi Kyu Hachi Yon in Japanese – maybe Nine-Cue-Eighty-Four).

One of the things about knowing an author’s work pretty well is you can see the recurrent characters and themes from other works. 1Q84 feels a bit like a greatest hits collection of Murakami themes. We have (and here thar be spoilers): two worlds being traversed (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Sputnik Sweetheart), disappearing women (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), affairs with an older married woman (Sputnik Sweetheart), mystical people with weird powers (TV People), Ushikawa (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), a cynical older peer figure (Norwegian Wood), a piece of classical music with great significance (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Second Bakery Attack), cults (Underground), becoming a writer (Norwegian Wood), a thirty year old narrator vaguely disconnected from life (almost every thing Murakami’s ever written) and there are probably more. In any case, a lot of the book felt familiar, but it was all rearranged into a more or less pleasing form.

There is a fakeout ending that isn’t so severe if you read the three volumes in one shot the way my translation is put together, which was robbed somewhat of its impact. And I feel like the whole thing ended too easily. There was a lot of time spent talking about issues, restating them and not pushing forward. I feel like this could have been a leaner story, and it’s not going to be the first Murakami book I’d recommend to someone. For me so much of the pleasure was in the interplay of the old stories and seeing how these characters behaved differently from their previous incarnations.

For my money I’m still pegging Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as my favourite Murakami novel. The themes are very similar to 1Q84’s but I think it’s a better working of them.

None of this is to suggest I think 1Q84 was a bad book. I loved it as I read it. The page-numbering goes up and down the margins, flipping into horizontal reflections as they pass the midpoint. That’s the kind of beautiful little detail emphasizing the characters’ situations that I loved to pieces, and really only gets to happen in a book by a famous writer who keeps on being in the Nobel Prize conversation.

Actually, a bit about that. I don’t really understand why Murakami would be in the running for a Nobel. I love his books, but they don’t scream “This is the pinnacle of World Literature” to me. They are books that I love but they feel too idiosyncratic to be winners of that kind of award.

book review: the nightly news

Jonathan Hickman’s The Nightly News is a comic about journalism, but unlike DMZ or Transmetropolitan this book’s journalists aren’t the (tarnished) heroes: they’re the enemy. The Nightly News is about revenge-killing journalists for their crimes of fucking with people. It’s also about cults and American politics being owned by media companies, and there’s a lot of Chomsky. It’s pretty awesome.

“Well, pardon me for being frank, but Chomsky’s a fucking retard.”
– Senator M. Jay Rector

One of the awesome things about it is how the pages are designed. There aren’t really many panels, but overlapping images in black white and monocolours/pages (oranges & browns for the present timeline, blues for the various other times). Infographics are interwoven through the pages, too. It doesn’t look like a regular comic book.

It gets a little over-the-top at times (the running joke with the media conglomerates/senators using quotes from famous Nazis that get mistaken for McLuhan and Chomsky is great, though). The characters we’re following are kind of terrible people. I appreciated the references at the end of the book, where Hickman explains some of the references being made and how it all got put together. The subtitle for the book is A Lie Told in Six Parts, but he still has to explicitly state “I am not the Voice in this book. This is a story, not a sermon.” (It reminds me of Warren Ellis having to state every once in a while that he and Spider Jerusalem aren’t actually one and the same being.)

I got this book from the library but I think I’m going to want a copy when I return to the Northern Hemisphere.