13 July 2017

Review - The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Image from http://www.orbitbooks.net/
The Delirium Brief
Charles Stross
Orbit, 13 July 2017
HB, 435pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

What can I say? Strauss's Laundry series gets better and better with each volume.

The Laundry is the section of the British Civil Service that deals with funny business - monsters, magic and unspeakable beings from beyond the stars. The books are, if you like, techno thrillers - if your tech is necromancy, and the thrills come from abstract maths.

In the latest book, we see the aftermath of the attack on Leeds by an elven host in The Nightmare Stacks. And if that was a spoiler then stop now and go and read the earlier books - you shouldn't be here. If you read any further your eyeballs will catch fire, unless you've applied the correct wards, OK?

Now, assuming you haven't been blasted into another universe which has too many corners, I'll continue.

This is the eighth volume in the series (with a few novellas and short stories besides) and what strikes me is how the storytelling has evolved, in two ways.

First, the theming of the books. Beginning as brilliantly written pastiches of different espionage authors, the series then moved onto books each featuring a well known fantasy creature. It has now dropped the pastiche/ monster of the day thing - fittingly, since the Laundry is exposed to its enemies as never before and confronting a new level of threat. It's time to come out in the open.

Secondly, the books have also shed what was very characteristic wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels plotting, where every paragraph seemed to hint at a secret, for something a little more straightforward. There are still of course plot twists, and indeed deeply shocking reverses and hidden agendas, but it's a little more "what you see is what you get" with the psychic space thus cleared allowing a greater focus on character (Mo and Bob are one of the great couples of modern fantasy: genuinely real, fleshed out people, albeit with bizarre problems) and on how those characters shape up in view of the coming threat.

The trademark cynical humour is still there, but accompanied now perhaps by a new, sober mood. In my view, it's this ability and willingness to shift tone that keeps this series fresh despite its now considerable length.

This book also brings together for the first time most of the character ensemble which has been forming over the last few volumes - so we meet againAlex and Mhari, the blooddrinking ex-bankers, maniac pixie dream girl Cassie who is dread leader of the aforementioned elven Host, as well as Persephone Hazard (Hooray!) and her sidekick Johnny. There are also several other figures from Bob Howard's past who I won't name (spoilers: but also, something may be listening).

Best of all, we see Mo again and we're back inside Bob's nightmare-haunted mind. Darkness is gathering, and business he thought dead and buried - or at least safely thrust into a cursed dimension - comes back for revenge. Exposed to Government displeasure and a hostile Press storm (there is a very funny passage in which Bob Does Media, specifically Newsnight) the Laundry has for the first time to account for itself. Having had dealings with the eldritch bodies that hold HMG accountable, I smiled to see our favourite necromancers, for the first time, come up against little things like democratic accountability and the need for things to be seen to be done.

It's all, of course, in service of a deeply threatening move by a sinister cult, and they should have seen it coming, but the sheer speed of events puts our heroes on the back foot very quickly. Stross gets some digs in here at the outsourcing process: underfund something, make the service bad, then invite in the boys and girls with the spreadsheets to cream off the work, making a fortune in the process.

If only that were the worst threat here.

By the end of this book we've seen Bob - and Mo - and all the rest pushed to the edge, in several ways, personal as well as professional, and - again on both fronts - there is a real sense of peril which isn't tidied away neatly on the last page. This is certainly the darkest Laundry book yet - despite the vein of humour that does run through it - and in its writing, I'd say, easily the most assured.

And the timing couldn't be better. The books shows a trusted Government organisation seriously challenged by flaky and dangerous outsiders. The organisation we depended on to keep us safe is vulnerable to subversion from above, by the arrogant, the greedy, the stupid. Does that remind you of anything? And more, at a stroke, the Laundryverse becomes a grimmer place - through this series, despite the grim warnings of unspeakable horror, we have perhaps come to see the Laundry as if not a certain shield, a pretty good one. Now... well, read the book and see for yourself.

In passing, I smiled that - despite what I said above - there is a little bit of classic spy fiction resonance here, in that parts of it reminded me of George Smiley & Co running their clandestine operation against the mole-infested Circus from a grubby hotel.

Stross has said that he'll never do Le Carre in this series, and yet...

You can read a sample of the book here.


2 comments:

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