Ace, 2014, 368 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-4252-5686-2
One of the hidden benefits of having taken a bit of time away from reading favourite authors in the past three years is that, suddenly, I had two Laundry Files novels to read back-to-back. Ha! Take that, interminable wait in-between volumes! Go away, unfulfilled addiction to one of my favourite ongoing series! Hello, instant gratification!
At first glance, fifth volume The Rhesus Chart looks like a romp. Discussing the series on his blog, Charles Stross has announced that while the first four volumes of the series had been homages to spy thrillers, the next three-book cycle would take on aspects of urban fantasy. So it is that The Rhesus Chart starts off modestly with series narrator Bob Howard discovering a nest of vampires set in London’s financial district. Now wait: Has someone said “vampire”? In the Laundry universe? Why yes: While the novel begins with “everybody knows vampires doesn’t exist”, Stross ends up doing some fancy foot-tapping in order to justify their existence within the framework of the series, and it works pretty well. When investment banking quants end up thinking a bit too much about the nature of new fiscal instruments, they end up ridden by extra-dimensional parasites that demand consumption of human blood for quantic-cognitive purposes. When Bob discovers what they’re up to through data mining, he declares an emergency, loads up for bear and…
…and that’s when, mid-way through, The Rhesus Chart takes a most unexpected and delightful plot detour, letting go of the expected fang-hunt in favor of something far more in-line with the series’ satiric approach to occult intelligence. I’m sitting on my hands not to say more, but I’ll add that right after I was openly musing (in reviewing The Apocalypse Codex) that The Laundry Files was worth reading for world-building more than plot, here is a novel that brings plotting back to the forefront. Characters in The Laundry Files are far more competent and reasonable than would be expected from similar urban fantasy series, and Stross doesn’t miss an occasion to poke fun at other vampire fiction (most notably by featuring a vampire-hunter demonstrated to be even worse than the vampires).
Throughout, The Rhesus Chart keeps up the fine (and sometimes dizzying) game of spot-the-references, blending geek jokes with pop-culture references, technical wizardry and genre references. I suspect that The Laundry Files is a narrowcast series: very enjoyable to those who happen to fall within the parameters of its premise, a bit less comprehensible to others. As a whole, the series is steadily getting grimmer even though The Rhesus Chart certainly seems to be a bit more comic (at times) than its two predecessors: Stross indulges in lame bureaucratic humor in describing how the Laundry forms a committee to deal with vampires (or PHANGs, as they are designated), but scores a few smiles in describing vampires using trendy software development methodology and project-management techniques to figure out what’s happening to them.
Some plot threads are launched that will hopefully pay off in future installments (including a new cat, and a conversation that suggests that Bob’s relationship with Mo is of high interest to the upper management of the Laundry). The editing is a bit slack in that the same plot points seem hammered home a few times (although, to be fair, the plot does get so convoluted at times that it seems as if even the narrator isn’t too sure what’s happening and why) and the usually heavy-handed exposition risks alienating those who aren’t already fans of exposition, although few of those will have made it to the fifth book of a series that delights in its exposition.
Then there’s the ending, which turns The Rhesus Chart from a romp to a significant installment in the series: The vampires bite where we least expect, several recurring characters die and one of the most comforting relationships in the series is badly damaged. Some of this could have been predicted from the overall series arc: other than the typical Campbellian plotting tropes, narrator Bob has, as demonstrated in the ways the narration has progressively gotten away from him, grown significantly in power and now knows too much to remain the sole viewpoint. In order to grow, The Laundry Files needed to shake up some of the foundations of the series, make Bob more miserable and find itself a few other narrative entry points.
It’s that kind of willingness to upset the status quo (as also shown most spectacularly in the conclusion to his initial Merchant Princes cycle) that makes Stross an interesting author even when he’s cold-bloodedly engaged in the mercantile tradeoffs of a continuing series. The Laundry Files could have stayed in stasis, featuring Bob Howard fighting the newest tentacled evil-of-the-book, but The Rhesus Chart show that Stross is actively reshaping his series as he goes along. Keeping in mind that the series started from what was meant to be a one-off short novel and that Stross’ game-plans keep evolving as he goes on (with a seven-book cycle now planned to hit nine volumes), this is a series that’s going to be worth reading for a while.