(2017) Charles Stross, Orbit, £18.99, hrdbk, 435pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50828-3
This is the eighth book in Charles Stross’s excellent dark satirical Laundry series.
Stross avoids formulaic writing and his heroes have changed considerably since the first book, The Atrocity Archives. The central character, spy, and occult specialist, Bob Howard is now possessed by a demon himself, a are many of his colleagues and his ex-wife. It’s a much more daring and entertaining take on MI5 V Forces of supernatural darkness than Brian Lumley’s 'Necroscope' stories.
The Laundry itself is no longer a secret society, but now a very publicly known organization, following the destruction of most of Leeds during a previous assignment. Bob Howard even finds himself interrogated on the tragic fiasco by Jeremy Paxman, (in one of the most unexpected cameos in all horror literature) a prospect Bob finds more terrifying than facing Cthulhu-like entities.
The department that has literal Spooks among its spook-spies faces its biggest threat to date though, downsizing, privatization and corporate take-over. All this occurs just as a US televangelist thought dead, and trapped in an alternative dimension, returns to turn most of Britain’s politicians into sex slaves for his parasitic monsters, creatures right out of an early David Cronenberg films such as Shivers or Rabid.
There is a great deal of action, comedy and digs at the British establishment. The names of leading political figures are changed but the presence of ‘Paxo’ shows that this parallel alternate World is very much our own really.
If there is a flaw it is that the main hero and narrator is himself largely absent from some of the central core scenes. After Howard is chased by deadly supernatural assassins, and has to break out of jail using his own soul-crunching powers, while trying not to actually kill anyone, he is largely marginalized from the action. The Laundry team launch a three pronged attack on separate parts of the evangelist’s operation, with Howard only involved in the first stage of the desperate defence of our realm. Howard’s jailbreak is soon followed by a second one when he his colleagues help spring other demons loose from captivity on a promise of pardoning them if they help the good guys, a role they rapidly come to relish.
Howard’s wife, who he clearly hopes to rekindle a relationship with finds herself in a Mission Impossible style sting operation to take down the main villain using a pact with another demonic entity for which there could be a serious price to pay in the next book in the series. The concluding sorcery battle between the god-like demons, with one being terribly British and apologetic about it all is hilarious and ghastly at the same time.
There are lots of digs at the whole range of espionage literature, with even the Laundry titles parodying the works of John Le Carre and Len Deighton among others. Stross switches effortlessly between humour and horror often in mid paragraph, with lots of brilliant pop culture references and digs at middle-management spin doctors. His heroes want to save the World while they have to fill out expenses forms, make their actions cost effective and attend PowerPoint presentations first. When the department is officially closed down, many of the monsters imprisoned through earlier assignments are at risk of being released and some branches of the outfit are in danger of running out of beer. Stross really does make business and politics a deadlier dimension than that ruled by marauding eldritch entities. That is what makes the Laundry books so much fun to read.
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