RogerBW's Blog

The Rhesus Chart, Charles Stross 01 April 2015

2014 modern occult secret service, fifth in the Laundry Files series. Everybody in the Laundry knows there's no such thing as vampires. Why are they so very sure?

There are great ideas here, but they're let down badly by sub-par execution. This is a very choppy book, which shows signs of having been put together piecemeal and not properly read through before it was sent for publication. For example, we're told twice (in nearly the same words) that the third-fastest way to get round London is in a police car with lights and siren going; we're told details about characters repeatedly, and without obvious point; subplots start off promisingly and then fade away, maybe to be brought back in a future book, maybe not. Most tellingly, the pacing is off: there are about 200 pages of prologue and setup, painstakingly establishing characters and situations and explaining the world for the benefit of the new reader, followed by 150 pages of actual plot.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that Bob Howard is no longer the new guy getting into trouble over his head; fair enough, I can see that that would get tired, but after the events of The Apocalyse Codex, he's both organisationally and magically a pretty significant player. Which means that the threat level has to be upped too, and somehow it isn't being; he's already dealt with stuff that could end the world and/or the Laundry, when he was less prepared to do so, and now he has a tool ready for every situation, not to mention being able to kill a fairly tough nasty from a distance and outside line of sight with only a few seconds' preparation. The peril and tension feel false.

There are some good jokes about Agile/scrum methodology but they feel as through they come from an outsider; Charlie's been out of software for a while now, and while he's probably talked to someone on the inside he hasn't captured the feel of it. The new vampires investigating their condition works well, as well as establishing the necessary ground rules since the idea of vampirism has been so overused in recent years that any author now has to state how they work in this particular universe. The comparison of vampires with commercial banks is laboured; it may have been fresh when he started writing, but it was tired well before publication, and it comes over like someone enthusiastically re-telling you a joke that you heard and got bored with years ago. Little details are wrong, like a sequence of roads in a drive round London that simply makes no sense at all (if you're starting from vaguely central London south of the River and heading for the M1 and Watford, you're probably not going to use the North Circular at all, and you're certainly not going to have anything to do with Neasden Lane North), not helped by a mention of "junction 1A" of the M25 which should clearly be junction 16. There's inconsistency about whether Bob's soul-eating powers will work on vampires. It's sloppy.

Every so often there's an aside where the Bob Howard of the future, writing up the incident report that forms the main narrative, steps in to point out what the reader should be paying attention to. There's a hidden villain who, given an utter lack of other plot purpose, might as well be wearing a sign saying "I am not the hidden villain". Decisions by Bob that are clearly going to have Plot Significance are made with all the subtlety and light touch of Bagger 288. Many of the goings-on turn out to have been manipulations and deceptions. Half of the climactic action, the half that's going to have major repercussions into future books, is related at even further remove than the rest of the book as extracts from an official report, with no viewpoint characters present, while several of the recurring minor characters from earlier books don't show up here at all. Named characters dieā€¦ off-stage. Yes, Charlie, you can say "X, aged 47, leaves a wife, Sandra (age 49), and two children, Alec (15) and Olivia (11)", and we get that you're trying to make us feel sad, but the strings are showing. We've never met Sandra or Alec or Olivia. They're just names you made up.

I'm sorry to say this, because I count Charlie as a friend and I've liked many of his earlier books, but I think this one needed a lot more work put into the writing. Time pressure? Boredom?

To be followed by The Annihilation Score.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:42pm on 01 April 2015

    I liked the first two Laundry books so much I bought them as a Christmas present for a friend. The third one left me cold and I've never been back to the series, sounds like it is struggling. Book 3 in paperback was holding up my broadband router for a while.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:37am on 02 April 2015

    I've enjoyed the series for the most part (Charlie is no Peter O'Donnell, but that's hardly his fault) but this just felt like unedited first draft.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:20pm on 03 April 2015

    Do you intend to tell him your opinion the next time you see Charlie?

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 01:26pm on 03 April 2015

    If it comes up. I'm not going to pin him down to tell him I didn't like his book!

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