20 October 2018

Review - The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

The Labyrinth Index (Laundry Files)
Charles Stross
Orbit, 30 October 2018
HB, 454pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book (thanks Nazia!)

Stross's Laundry Files are now, I think, his most numerous and long lasting series, running to eight or nine novels (with The Labyrinth Index) and several novellas and short stories (depending how you count the stories in The Atrocity Archives, the first book).

While always having at its centre The Laundry itself, the UK's occult service ("occult secret service" would be a tautology, no?) which is lovingly portrayed with all its bureaucratic quirks and terrors, the books really come into their own in disassembling and rebuilding the Lovecraft mythos to fit a world of coders, geeks and cubicles. Stross has lots of fun with this (and with geek culture more generally) but there's no disguising the cosmic horror that increasingly hangs over these books.

As The Labyrinth Index opens with a particularly chilling execution scene, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is active and the Laundry has fallen, with the Black Pharaoh, N'yar Lat-Hotep, assuming power as the UK's Prime Minister. The New Management is in charge, the lesser of two evils, apparently. Well, at least it's a change from the previous Government, and should liven things up? They can't really be that bad?

I mean, things can't get any worse, can they?

Can they...?

I really take my hat off to the way Stross has followed through the logic of power politics to root his Lovecraftian singularity in a firmly credible, modern day setting. The world of the Laundry Files is not all crazed cultists in the woods but well-financed televangelists, crooked bankers and, of course, venal politicians. Very much like our own. And over the series the cast of characters in these books has expanded to reflect this, Stross introducing not only new human members of the Laundry staff but elves, vampires and superheroes too, all of it plausibly done with explanations for everything rooted in the idea that computation is magic.

In The Labyrinth Index, the Prime Minister commands His servants to investigate why the US President has gone missing. A complex, if desperate plan is devised to infiltrate the United States (with the US equivalent of the Laundry referred to as the Nazgûl, the line "One does not simply walk into Mordor" can be deployed unironically...) The activity here is underpinned by the usual meticulous degree of research, and it could, you know, all perfectly well work, given the premise of computational demonology.

Central to all this is Mhairi, the PHANG who did actually appear in The Atrocity Archives but then faded from sight for a while. She has the central role in this book, as Baroness Karnstein, the new PM's fixer but is supported by, for the first time, pretty much everyone we've met so far (including an elven vampire necromancer who's on the autistic spectrum. Great to meet you, Marisol!) In fact almost the only regular characters we see little of are Bob, who has new responsibilities as avatar of the Eater of Souls, and Mo. Hopefully they'll be back again soon but in the meantime it's good to see this story told through other eyes. Mhairi is an engaging lead, concealing a fair amount of her history from us but also clearly wracked by shock and guilt that she has to consume blood to live.

Guilt is fairly widespread in fact as the very act of submitting to N'yar Lat-Hotel takes its toll, even if He is a relatively sparing Lord. In the USA the Black Chamber have taken a different tack, and for once it's hard to argue that our friends in the Laundry are on firmer moral ground, even if the entity they deal with seems less far reaching in His evil. All choices are bad, everything leads to ruin, seems to be the subtext.

But while the world merrily rattles off to Hell in its accelerating handcart, we can still have some fun - the bone violin plays a good jig - and The Labyrinth Index serves plenty of that up, whether you're into a solid, clever plot, sly humour with a point (there's a running gag about the problems in the US - when people go to sleep, they forget who the President is, allowing his enemies to write him out of reality. So there are plenty of allusions to those who know what's going as being "awake"... but not everyone wants to be awake...) or just excellent storytelling.

At the same time, the book moves us forward into Stross's Apocalypse. The tipping point in this universe was reached, I think, a couple of books ago, but so far it hasn't been clear what exact form the catastrophe might take. Now things seem to be getting clearer, and the pace picking up.

In short this series shows no sign of tailing off, rather it seems to be getting stronger and stronger. I really can't wait to see what Stross serves up next.

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