I need to talk about how much I love the Laundry series. I've spent the past several months in a state of constant low-level excitement for the impending release of the latest volume, and now, after reading it in essentially one go last Sunday, I'm going to spend the next year (yes, the next volume comes out exactly one year from now) in anticipation of the next. Painful
A year and a few months ago, after moving to this part of the city, I found the third volume of some... urban fantasy series? - I wasn't quite sure what it was, and I'm still not sure how I would classify this - on a bookcrossing shelf here. It was one of two English-language books on there, both of them from the sf and fantasy spectrum. This one was by Charles Stross; the other by Bruce Sterling. I remembered enjoying the only bit of Stross I'd ever read, and not-so-much-enjoying what I'd read of Sterling, so I only took the Stross – despite the fact that it was part of a series (I'm not too keen on series), and the third volume and thus almost certainly a bad place to start. (I should have taken the Sterling, too, really. When I came back a week later it was gone.)
I started the book without expectations, but it grabbed me, hard, from the very first page
. The first two pages of The Fuller Memorandum
dump what feels like a truckload of major spoilers on the reader – terrible gods and lost love and grievous injuries and on top of that, nothing less than „the beginning of the end of the world“. Reading this laundry list (heh) of disasters, you may find yourself checking the book's length: but no, it really has only 350 pages. To be fair, one of the items on the list, lost love, is a bit of an overstatement on our narrator's part. The rest, though, yeah. They definitely happen in those 350 pages.
Then the first chapter proper begins, and it's the contrast between the drily humourous tone on display there, and the prologue's dire foreshadowing that really sold me on the book, I think. The first chapter takes us back to our narrator Bob's everyday life. Bob (not his real name), whose narrative voice in this chapter is less drenched in the cynicism and despair of the prologue, and instead is characterised mainly by the sarcasm of the put-upon office drone, is an IT guy in the civil service, who does IT guy things, like revising cabling proposals for a building project, and civil service things, like filling in lots and lots of forms. But - he's an IT guy in a top-secret government department – nicknamed the Laundry – that deals with the occult, and so his job also occasionally entails, say, exorcising haunted jet fighters. Magic, it turns out, is a branch of applied mathematics in the Laundry universe, and that's why a lot of computer sciences students and IT professionals there end up accidentally branching out into summoning monstrous creatures from beyond space-time. Stopping that kind of thing from happening is part of the Laundry's job.
There's a strong line of office/IT humour running through this series (more evident in the earliest three volumes than the latter two) – it's been compared to Dilbert, The Office, or the IT Crowd, among other things; there's also an element of pastiche, in particular of British spy novels (mostly in the first four volumes). Yet the third main ingredient is a heavy dose of the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, and that element is mostly played straight. The horror sits strangely against the humour, but somehow the two don't clash but rather, sort of, amplify each other. It's a great literary trick, if you can manage it.
The constant tension between the series' disparate elements makes for a great deal of its charm. Still, it might grow stale, if Stross kept recycling the same recipe. Starting with volume three of the series, though, comes a major shift in the series' emotional tone: our narrator begins to understand that he is living in the actual, proper End Times – that the „walls“ between realities are growing thin, and very soon all the horrors of the multiverse will enter his world, where they will probably find humanity, as Bob puts it, „crunchy and good with ketchup“.
I'm not actually a big fan of grim, dark and gritty stuff per se. I rather enjoy a healthy dose of fun in my reading (and watching, and gaming etc.). Mix the grim and the dark with the fun in just the right proportions, though, and it can, occasionally, be delicious. The Laundry series get the mixture exactly right.
Another thing Stross gets very right in this series is how to turn a character who started out fairly lightweight and lighthearted into... something very, very different from that description. Bob acquires a set of rather interesting and unsual talents (unusual, that is, even in fantasy – especially for a main character)... and I can't really talk about this part here without going into full-on spoiler mode, which is a shame, because as so often, it's the character development that gets me truly hooked on this series.
Speaking of Bob, I also need to mention Mo. Bob, you see, is married. His wife Mo is also an agent of the Laundry, and she kicks as much ass as he or more - and she does so with one of the more original magical weapons I've seen in fantasy so far: a vampiric violin made from human bone, whose music kills demonic critters. When she comes back from whatever the latest job the Laundry sent her on was – likely an assassination or something similarly stomach-turning – Bob breaks out the comfort food and the Scotch, and holds her while she cries. When Bob wakes up screaming at night because he's having nightmares in which he (REDACTED), she does the same for him. They're a hurt/comfort kind of couple, and they're lovely
- heartbreakingly brave, and sad, and laughing in the face of a cruel universe.
The Laundryverse's apocalypse is approaching - has, in fact, already begun, and is rapidly picking up speed. It looks like Stross will give us open magical warfare in the streets of London fairly soon, with all the shocks and changes that implies for a modern, intensely non-magical society, and I can't wait to see how he's going to handle that. It looks as if at some point the Laundry series will pivot to show us not just the impact of magic on individual characters, but on an entire society that is very poorly equipped to deal with it. This is especially intriguing to me since the usual mode of the genre seems to be for magic to somehow always remain hidden from the public – contrast that with the Laundry, which even in the current, fifth volume, is preparing a public information campaign for the inevitably approaching moment when reality incursions from other universes will become undeniable...
I should perhaps also note here that magical warfare in the Laundryverse isn't so much wizards waving wands („wizards“, incidentally, is a word not generally used by practitioners there - who, if anything, are more likely to call themselves sorcerers or computational demonologists or necromancers, depending on their specialty) as heavily armed special forces who are quite officially, though also very secretly, part of the British army... Also, when conventional heavy weaponry and magic both fail, nukes are the natural next step.
(I was going to continue here for a bit yet, and then also add a couple of paragraphs about the reservations I have about the books - because these books aren't perfect, and there are a couple of things that bother me about them, and also, they're kind of hard to get into for a lot of people, I suspect, because especially in the beginning, they're absolutely packed with IT references, which makes them intermittently near-incomprehensible to non-IT nerds. But, I'm just so in love at the moment I don't really feel like dwelling on the negatives; and also, very very tired. So here, have a love bomb instead.)