The Annihilation Score
Orbit, 2 July 2015
Bought from Transreal Fiction, Edinburgh
To a degree it seems silly for me to be reviewing this. It's the nth in a series. Hardcore readers will know more or less what they're getting. Newbies are best advised to start at the beginning because SPOILERS. And I generally love Stross's books so I'm probably biased.
But there are some points of particular interest here. First, the book adopts a different viewpojnt - Bob, who we've followed from a wet-behind-the-ears IT support person to... something a bit more powerful and scary... is elsewhere, clearing up after the events of The Rhesus Chart. (Or so he says...) The book is told from the perspective of Mo, his wife, and picks up right where Rhesus Chart left. So, a new viewpoint character, but one who knows Bob and has been involved in some of the earlier and who can therefore give slightly different insights.
Secondly, there is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. This has been dangled in from of us through the series as the prelude to the Apocalypse, a time when unmentionable horrors would break through to feast on our souls. As such, it seemed rather a daunting backdrop, but Stross makes it clear that we are (and have for some time) been living through the early part of CNG. That actually gives him a pretext to bring in pretty much any fantasy or SF trope he wants to play with, justified as a side effect of the thinning walls between the different realities. So here we get superheroes (and villains) while in Rhesus Chart it was vampires. Mo has been ordered to devise a plan for dealing with said heroes/ villains - and of course a plan in the British Civil Service involves loads of bureaucracy: I thought the shenanigans with Ministers and other bits of the Whitehall machine were rather well done and accurate (and I have literally been there: wonder who's been blabbing to Stross?)
This is all fast paced and compelling, although now that the books are taking their cue from a "monster of the week" there isn't, to my mind, quite the same depth or the same ramified quality to them as in the earlier ones, which each drew on a different classic writer of spy thrillers. It is pretty clear what the problem to be tackled is and how it will turn out (indeed, Mo tells us where we're going quite early) - the suspense is more in how, and who will get it in the neck. (Rhesus Chart showed that Stross has no compunction at killing off his puppets).
The different point of view adds interest to the book although I wasn't sure how well the book did at making Mo seem different from Bob. She has a similar knowing, medium-boiled tone which is perhaps understandable (they've been married 12 years) but I'm not sure - if the names were filed off - whether I'd be able to tell Mo's narration from Bob's. On the other hand there is possibly more emotional depth since Mo is more open about Recent Events in their marriage and about what's been going on with her professionally than Bob would ever be - this adds an extra dimension to the story.
So, at one level, interesting and different and an absolute essential if you're following this series, possibly slightly better than Rhesus Chart, although maybe it doesn't quite all that it set out to. And I was slightly irked by the American localisation: Charter schools, long explanations of what the Last Night of the Proms is from a British character supposedly writing a word diary for, presumably, British characters, copious use of "gotten", a police superhero named "Officer Friendly" (should be PC Friendly surely?) I assume the same version of the text has been used for UK and US editions, and as the US marked it much bigger, I can't quarrel with that. But I think it's a shame.
Finally: beyond the superhero theme this books also draws on another fantasy vein that I don't think the Laundry Files have visited before, one I've seen used VERY clunkily by others recently. And I have to say that Stross handles it adroitly, making the best use of it I've seen, and adding an extra edge of weird to his already pretty much weirded out universe.