Friday, July 08, 2016

The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

Charles Stross has been clearly getting more and more uncomfortable with the "Bob Howard" first-person straitjacket of his "Laundry Files" to date -- there's only so many secrets and shattering occult events that any one person can witness. Those books have been more and more incorporating third-person sections, to show us the things Bob doesn't know yet, or only suspects. But once you start switching viewpoints, the urge is to really switch them.

And so the sixth Laundry Files novel is told by someone entirely different: "Mo O'Brien," Bob's long-time partner, current holder of a Zahn violin (one of the deadliest, and nastiest, occult artifacts usable by humans), and one of the Laundry's top wet-work specialists. (Stross hasn't made a big deal about it so far -- in large part because Bob is an obtuse and self-centered fellow who barely notices it himself -- but Mo is much tougher, scarier, and dangerous than Bob at this point.) The Annihilation Score is what happens to her the the immediate aftermath of the end of the prior book, The Rhesus Chart, where Bob and Mo's respective supernatural tools/burdens/curses declared each other mortal enemies, more or less.

(Confused? You could see my reviews of the earlier books, in reverse chronological order: The Rhesus Chart, The Apocalypse Codex, The Fuller Memorandum. Before that were The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives, which I didn't cover here. But the world is fairly easy to describe: Lovecraft was right. Creatures indifferent to man lurk between the angles of our world, and many of them like to eat us. Worse, the rituals to invoke them depend on both attention and math -- both of which, in our ever-more-computationally-blessed and population-booming world, are easier and easier with each passing day. Against those nightmare horrors stands mostly government bureaucracy: underfunded, neglected, full of misfits and time-servers and the odd competent person, organizations that are at least as dysfunctional and soul-destroying as the place you work.)

Unfortunately, Mo was already on the edge of a nervous breakdown -- her violin whispers to her horribly in the dark hours, as such things do, and she's spent the best years of her life traveling the world, meeting monsters both human and non-, and killing them. What she needs, after Bob moves out to keep them from killing each other inadvertently, is a long rest and to put down that violin.

What she gets is thrown into another growing crisis. The burgeoning magical apocalypse -- CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, in which the stars are right and a certain someone rises from deep under the sea to rule and destroy all, is only one potential option -- means that there's more and more loose energy, causing more and more random supernatural events. In particular, ordinary people are getting strange abilities -- powers beyond those of normal men, you might say. Sure, the things from beyond space will likely eat those folks' brains within a year or three, but, until then...well, they look an awful lot like superheroes, flying or controlling minds or running really fast.

So Mo is tasked with setting up the British national police force for and of super-powered individuals -- both the public face of that organization, to calm the public, and the secret side, to find and recruit or suppress the most powerful and dangerous supers. And, as always with the Laundry Files -- and in the real world as well -- there are secret agendas that she's not aware of, and people setting her up to fail for their own reasons. (For one minor example, her new second-in-command is Bob's crazy ex Mhari, now a vampire.)

Mo has to avoid professional, personal, and psychic breakdowns, build a new super-police from scratch within a few months, and stop plots she doesn't even know exist. Luckily, she has a superpower of her own...and it's not one you'd expect.

I'm deeply amused that the Laundry books continue to be Stross's most optimistic series, given that they're explicitly about skating the edge of a horrific magical apocalypse. But he keeps that tone going, and deepens his world with every new book -- dragging in more pop-culture ideas and twisting them to fit his mythology in a way that makes us all think "yes, that's what it really would be like." These are marvelous books, fun and frightening and amazing and just a huge treat to read. The Annihilation Score lives up to the earlier books, and shows that the USP of the Laundry Files isn't Bob or his narrative voice: it's the world Stross has created, and continues to create.

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