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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: little, big

I had John Crowley’s Little, Big in a to-read list for ages. I have finally read it. I didn’t like it very much.

It’s a novel about the people who live in this impossible house in an off-brand united states, starting around the end of the 19th century and spanning decades into the 20th. It’s about faerie and the City, and finding a destiny, and it was boring. I don’t mind books without a plot if I can sink my brain into the characters but none of them grabbed me. So I ground my way through waiting for some of the layers that were accumulating to pay off, but they never did.

It’s a little disappointing and I wonder why I wanted to read it in the first place. Must have been on a list or something. For something in a similar setting but with plottiness I’d recommend Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World duology instead.

new job-like thing for my non-work hours

This month I almost forgot to renew my BC Library Association (BCLA) membership. I originally got membership as a student for free but now that I’m a totally legitimate professional, it costs money, so it’s something I can easily let slip through the cracks. But letting my membership lapse would be kind of awkward and weird at this point since I’m now officially a co-chair of BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) with David Waddell. Woo!

In his “passing the baton” email to the BCLA and IFC lists the outgoing chair, Jon Scop, commented on how it’s kind of interesting to have an intellectual freedom leadership position going from one male children’s librarian to two male children’s librarians. To me it seems obvious that children’s librarians would be big intellectual freedom advocates.

This was banned books week in the states, and it’s totally commonplace at this point to note how many challenged books are kids’ books like Captain Underpants. Minors are a chunk of our society with very little power and there’s a huge swathe of society that wants to protect kids from ideas adults don’t want them to have. I see my role as a children’s librarian as serving kids, not their parents or teachers, which is quite fundamentally anti-elitist and subversive (one of the things I love about librarianship).

Saying “I can’t let you see that” to a segment of community members just because they don’t have a bunch of legal rights (to vote or drink or go to war or whatever) is kind of anathema to the librarian ideal. While teens are fierce defenders of their own intellectual freedom, librarians are natural adult allies, especially since we don’t have any real power over them (I suppose we can kick them out of the library), just expertise to offer. As a children’s librarian, part of my job is to take seriously what kids are interested in pursuing when they are looking for help, and not saying “Ugh, more Fairies/Pokemon/Sparkly Vampires?”

One of my formative kidbrarian experiences happened on my first day working a refdesk (which I blogged at the time). I’m still proud of my instincts to bring the 12-year-old kid over to the shelf where we kept Mein Kampf. In one of my post-MLIS job interviews I was asked what I’d do with an 11-year-old girl asking about Fifty Shades of Grey. In that interview I fucked up. I tried to make myself more hireable by waffling a bit and adding some more questions to my reference interview to make sure the kid knew it wasn’t a book for kids. Seriously, I hate that I did that and I totally blame the whole job-search process for making me less than confident in my ideals and whether someone would actually hire a kids librarian who wouldn’t blink at giving an 11-year-old steamy fanfic. That’s the kidbrarian I want and try to be.

Yesterday I was in a middle school talking to a bunch of 8th graders about the library and why we’re relevant to them. This was one of the things I stressed to them. In the eyes of our library, once they’re 13 they have adult cards and we won’t tell anyone what they’re borrowing. I told them that we don’t care if they want to read Pokemon comics (or other materials “below their level”) or Anais Nin. If we find something for them and it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. That’s the whole point.

Anyway, all that is to say that youth librarians make total sense as intellectual freedom defenders (but I won’t subject you to my theories of why it makes sense there’d be a confluence of male children’s librarians doing this stuff, because I wouldn’t want to paint any other librarians with my weird gender-role identity issues). I’m looking forward to working with BCLA’s IFC on these issues, but as always whatever I say is just me talking, not official views on anything unless I clearly mark it as such. You can read our blog and follow us on Twitter.

book review: lud-in-the-mist

Lud-in-the-Mist is a fairy story by Hope Mirrlees that was written in the 1920s but doesn’t feel especially out of date. There are some stylistic choices with the point of view never holding still with one character for long, which doesn’t feel very disciplined, but it’s completely forgivable because the story is so pleasant.

Lud in the Mist is a boring little town just to the East of the Faerie lands. When people start acting strangely the Mayor tries to get to the bottom of things and discovers smuggling of faerie fruit, which is such a tremendously obscene thing to eat or even discuss that in the court records it is referred to as silk. All sorts of things happen with this faerie fruit, including to the Mayor’s son and a whole school full of girls (guess which one is more of a concern). There are reversals and clever bits and friendship and strange oaths and it’s all quite charming.

If you enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust you really should read this fairly neglected classic.

book review: the ladies of grace adieu and other stories

It’s been a while since I read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, so the stories in The Ladies of Grace Adieu that dealt with characters from that novel probably had a bit more for recently finished readers, but as a book of fairy stories, the whole collection was very good.

Embroidery emerges as a motif in a couple of stories, but faerie are far far more prominent. I enjoy Clarke’s depictions of the fae as being bizarre aliens who don’t understand human concerns very well. The story set in the town of Wall (from Neil Gaiman’s Stardust) was probably my favourite in the book because the human was clever enough to get out with his skin intact, but not able to pull out a real victory. It felt very satisfying in the way a much older story would, which is what you want out of a book of faerie tales.

book review: the replacement

Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement is about a kid who isn’t normal. Oh sure Mackie has friends at school, but he also has severe reactions to the sight of blood and reacts badly to stainless steel and he has to stay out in unconsecrated ground when his father preaches at their local church. Mackie tries to keep a low low profile because his parents have always taught him about what awaits those who are different in the town of Gentry. But when Tate’s sister dies, Tate forces Mackie to quit not looking at the things that make him and the whole town weird.

I liked this book better than Holly Black’s Tithe which is an obvious comparison. It was interesting to read a faerie book where the fae person was a guy, and his relationships with both his male friends and the girls in the book were excellent and believable. There was angst but it wasn’t overpowering, ominousness that went somewhere. The only thing that felt a bit weird to me was the dropping of the musical subplot. It fed into the larger issues Mackie was going through but I’d hoped it would tie in a bit more. But that’s just quibbling. This is great, creepy YA stuff (probably a little fluffy for adult readers who want something dark about stolen children though).

book review: the wee free men

The Wee Free Men isn’t the best title for Terry Pratchett’s excellent book about a girl, Tiffany Aching, who becomes a witch-hero.

Like The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents this is an excellent younger readers-focused book set in the Discworld but kind of off to the side somewhere. It has less to do with storybook tropes, and more with analysis of what a witch actually does.

Basically Tiffany Aching is a ten-year-old badass through her careful paying of attention to things and when her little brother (who she doesn’t really like) is kidnapped by otherworldly creatures she goes off to save him because who can wait for the “real witches” to show up? She’s got help from a toad (a bit) and the titular Wee Free Men, who are pictsies that fight and steal and cuss. They’re kind of awesome and stuff, but it bugs me that the book is named after the assistants, rather than the hero. I guess there are a lot of them, and they may have intimidated Sir Pratchett.