I love starting a book which confuses me from the onset! I started reading and I was thinking that maybe I fell into an alternate universe where this would make sense.
Read this and tell me what you think:
Bob and I are operatives working for an obscure department of the British civil service, known to its inmates—of whom you are now one—as the Laundry. We’re based in London. To family and friends, we’re civil servants; Bob works in IT, while I have a part-time consultancy post and also teach theory and philosophy of music at Birkbeck College.
In actual fact, Bob is a computational demonologist turned necromancer, and I am a combat epistemologist. (It’s my job to study hostile philosophies, and disrupt them. Don’t ask; it’ll all become clear later.) I also play the violin.
A brief recap: magic is the name given to the practice of manipulating the ultrastructure of reality by carrying out mathematical operations. We live in a multiverse, and certain operators trigger echoes in the Platonic realm of mathematical truth, echoes which can be amplified and fed back into our (and other) realities. Computers, being machines for executing mathematical operations at very high speed, are useful to us as occult engines. Likewise, some of us have the ability to carry out magical operations in our own heads , albeit at terrible cost.
Yep, I was confused. I did a quick search to see what I was getting myself into and it appears I picked a book that’s book 6 in a series about the Laundry – the British secret agency that fights supernatural threats.
I kept on reading, telling my brain that it will start making sense eventually and it kinda did. The story is told from the perspective of Mo who is married to Bob. Mo and Bob have been married for a long time and they have a good relationship together but Bob has mis-stepped a few times and Mo feels like any cheated married woman does. Bitter to no end about her husband’s infidelity. She’s insecure even about the women that Bob dated before they met:
Why did I feel threatened by her? Oh yes, that. Spending a week destiny-entangled with someone—in and out of their head telepathically, among other things—is supposed to be like spending a year married to them. And Ramona was thoroughly entangled with Bob for a while. But that was most of a decade ago, and people change, and it’s all water that flowed under the bridge before I married him, and I don’t like to think of myself as an obsessive/intransigent bitch, and Mermaid Ramona probably isn’t even anatomically stop thinking about that compatible anymore.
Her insecurity drives her to behave shady too.. Sure, she didn’t have sex with Jim but going on romantic dates and kissing in a limo doesn’t seem very faithful to me. She would probably flip out if Bob did the same thing, just look at her reaction to Bob letting Mhari stay over at their house, and that was Bob trying to keep Mhari from being killed.
As I stare at Mhari I experience a strange shift in perspective, as if I’m staring at a Rubin vase: the meaning of what I’m seeing inverts. She crouches before me on her knees, looking up at me like a puppy that’s just shit its owner’s bed and doesn’t know what to do. Her face is a snarl—no, a smile —of terror. I’m older than she is, and since becoming a PHANG she looks younger than her years, barely out of her teens: she’s baring her teeth ingratiatingly, the way pretty girls are trained to. As if you can talk your way out of any situation, however bad, with a pretty smile and a simper.
Here comes Domonique, his wife, catching him in a horribly compromising situation, and her own pet demon in the guise of a violin made of bone and eldritch horror decides its time to take vengeance on her man for what appears to be infidelity (it isn’t) with a vampire (damn those running for your life circumstances), and Bob’s little counterargument by way of tiny glowing worms in his eyes.
I understand why their marriage is breaking down. Truly. But it makes me so sad. Neither of them wanted what eventually happened.
Just once, I would love to see a book where the middle aged female protagonist doesn’t have a hunky co-worker she finds hard to resist, while her absent husband and struggling marriage labour on in the background. Or find herself in a contrived situation that requires her to work with her husband’s ex-girlfriends. It’s…. derivative.
“Superman, Iron Man, Batman”—Flyaway Hair winces visibly—“you name it. Rich, powerful, white alpha males who dress up in gimp suits and beat up ethnically diverse lower-class criminals.”
The premise of the book is that Mo’s and her team is in the middle of London, on call to put down third tier super-villains. Mo’ never really does anything that actually matters. She doesn’t gain any real agency until the story has about 10 pages left, and even then… well, more on that later. Everything leading up to the finale is meaningless, and indeed she knows it to be meaningless because her job is simply to create meaningless theatre until the real threat reveals itself. So the reader is lead through about 300 pages of pointless meetings, bureaucratic decisions, memo writing, power point presentations, endless rounds of self-doubt and self-analysis and self-pity sessions none of which ultimately end up contributing to the plot or advancing the story.
“First, we have something very special for you tonight. It has never been played before in a concert hall: indeed, the score of this piece was thought to have been lost until, barely a month ago, a copy came to light in the rare manuscripts archive during the clean-up after the Mad Scientist Professor Freudstein’s robbery of the British Library! Some of you may have heard of a famously obscure play called The King in Yellow —it was in part the subject of a television crime drama last year. The King in Yellow was converted to an opera but never performed in full; Franz Kafka prepared the libretto and a score was subsequently written by his collaborator, the violinist Erich Zahn, for performance on specially adapted instruments of his own devising, but the rise of fascism put an end to all attempts to perform it until after the war. During the early 1960s, Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop attempted to rescore the concerto for electronic instruments, but the controversial nature of the piece resisted attempts to bring it to a mainstream audience.”
She never figures out who Freudstein is on her own. She never puts the pieces together. Even at the end, Mo’s big escape plan involves telling Officer Friendly to pick up the script and run. And there’s no reason why Mo is even kept in the dark here — the SA knows exactly who is responsible, so why keep her in the dark?
About 250 pages of this work could have been cut out and made a tighter story. Chekov’s gun is repeatedly violated. Pages and pages are spent on things that end up not mattering to the story in the slightest. If I tried to list the things that were introduced that never have any relevancy to the story at all, it would be longer than this review and possibly longer than the actual meat of this novel.
The great parts:
The attachment between Mo and her violin: It’s funny: I’m fully dressed but I feel naked without my violin.
The not so great parts:
From time to time Bob floats on stage and gives some hints about exciting Indiana Jones type delves in to true Lovecraftian abandoned temples and lost cities which makes us wonder why we aren’t actually away reading about that sort of stuff rather than attending Mo’s business meetings.
Stross seems to have gone out of his way to create an explicitly feminist story. It’s like the whole story was an exercise in writing a book that passed the Bectel Test, but forgot to actually have a plot. Worse, if the book is to be judged by how well it succeeded in that, having practically every female character with a speaking line be one of Bob’s prior romantic interests made the whole thing feel more like a harem style anime than a female empowering exercise, especially given how useless Mo’ comes off in the story.