The Annihilation Score is the sixth book in The Laundry series by Charles Stross. If you've read those, then know that this book, like the others, is next in the chronology of the Laundry universe. It actually starts somewhat before its predecessor, The Rhesus Chart, ends. It manages that trick because it's the first Laundry book with a protagonist other than Bob Howard. This one is written from the perspective of Mo, Dominique O'Brien, Bob's wife. Also known as AGENT CANDID and 'the bearer of the pale violin' (which in turn lives in a case with a sticker reading 'THIS MACHINE KILLS DEMONS').
This is a large book, clocking in at 401 pp in the hardcover edition. I'm of two minds about it.
I have to stop here and produce a SPOILERS warning. These spoilers will be for the Laundry Series up to date; there will be none for this book that aren't already given the reader in the public blurb and reviews. But if you haven't read the Laundry series up through The Rhesus Chart, you might want to look away at this point before the information I am about to disclose generates a Vollman-Knuth summoning invocation inside your cerebral cortex of approximately Category Aleph-Six. This means you'll flip a coin between passing away due to terminal Krantzberg Syndrome or having your medulla devoured greedily by feeders, glowy green worms who will swim behind your eyes. Either way, your health savings account will need to be closed with the appropriate Home Office paperwork.
That right there was a spoiler speedbump. If you haven't read The Laundry, the above will make absolutely no sense to you and probably won't be funny at all, which should have brought you up short enough that this repetition will get through: I'm going to spoil stuff about the series prior to this book.
Okay. I've taken all reasonable precautions, filled out my next-of-kin emergency form and grounded the summoning grid. Onward.
Let's start with why I liked the book. I liked the book because, hey, it's The Laundry, and the playground alone is enough to make me grin. I like the book because it is, in fact, an interesting expansion of our narrow viewpoint into the Laundry's universe to have it told by Mo O'Brien/AGENT CANDID. And I liked it because the end of the last book was kind of an eyeball kick of what JMS would call WHAM, and there needed to be explanation and development of the aftermath to that sequence of events or the cliffhanger would have just pissed me off. And I liked the book because it's an explicit exploration of the relationship between Mo and her instrument - which is referred to in this book alternatively as 'Lecter' or 'The Pale Violin' or 'The Erich Zahn'. Her bonding (or binding) to that instrument/weapon has been probably the most important piece of her character the past four books or so, along with the related question of what, precisely, does a combat epistomologist do? Well, Stross gets around to answering some questions about the violin, and Mo, and their relationship. As per usual, it's not stuff you might want to think about just before sleeping. (Poor Bob).
Now, the section I hate writing. The problems I have with the book. I hate writing this section because, look, Charlie Stross is a hell of a writer - and writing this kind of critique makes me feel like a complete fraud because I can't write anywhere nearly as well as he can despite my willingness for and possible history of, I'm not telling, sacrificing young goats and stranger's children to the altar of prose. Also, he works hard at his job, and I'm a dilettante who can go years without generating a word. Even when I do, it sometimes comes out as a homage to Charlie's work. So, Charlie, if you ever read this, please know I love your work and I only say this because I care - and remember, I like the book and will cheerfully throw the money at you for the hardcover of the next one.
Anyway. Here's where the spoilers kick in. I think Charlie Stross has an apocalypse addiction, and it's really causing him trouble here. (UPDATE: See end of review for more info.)
His fetish for The End is no secret - he published a book titled TOAST which is basically a collection of short stories about our ending, a one-man band version of E2's Apocalyptic Bibliotheque. His hard sci-fi (Iron Sunrise/Singularity Sky) is full of nano and Big Space Engineering powered Gotterdamerrung. His series The Merchant Princess, even, has apocalyptic events in it, and I'll bring that one up specifically in just a minute.
See, if you've been following along with the Laundry, the big spring driving the plot - and our characters - is something you're familiar with, called CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. If you don't know what that means but are still reading, I'll explain because you were warned. It basically is an end-of-the-world scenario. See, in this world, running code on computers or in human brains attracts the attention of creatures from other dimensions - demons, basically - and lets you do magic. The problem is that there are so many people on Earth, and we're moving into a propitious conjunction (of stars? whatever) that soon, the barriers between universes will start to wear through. When this happens, magic will become available at full power to everyone on earth, not just the few who are in on the secret - and a bit later, the Great Old Ones will notice us and come through the holes in reality to gnaw on our brains. End of the world.
That's a pretty potent apocalypse. And here's the problem. The Laundry is not only a pre-apocalypse story, it's also a secret-world story. Like Harry Potter or The Dresden Files or any other, The Laundry is a secret world where those who know that magic is real, and how to do it, have power. The really, really clever hook in Charlie's case is that here, that secret world is Venn Diagram-overlapped with the real secret world of government, military and intelligence classified activity. The Laundry, after all, is a British Government agency. That's what brings the series so much of its narrative power - that it's using all these achingly familiar tropes from decades of spy stories and cold war tales so cleverly to describe and manage a 'magic secret world'. The synergy is delicious.
With me so far? Okay, I'm getting to the problem. The third factor that feeds into our problem is what I call the 'level up' trope. I'm sure there's a real name for it somewhere that I'm not erudite enough to know, although I bet a few minutes on TV Tropes would tell me. See, our protagonist (Bob Howard, to date) and his wife are sympathetic characters we can identify with at the start of the series because they only have one toe in the Secret World. They are low-level civil servants of magic and demonology. We can almost imagine we are them, if we too had just been pulled behind the curtain - and being pulled behind a government classification curtain is so very normal and imaginable these days that it makes suspension of disbelief incredibly easy.
But as the series goes on, we have to show development, right? And naturally, that means that our protagonist must level up. In most series, this is true. In the Lord of the Rings, our heroes gain information and allies and factions and even equipment and powers as the books go on, culminating in an epic battle that we couldn't even imagine, sitting in The Shire. In The Dresden Files, Harry Dresden starts off as a wizard - one who is powerful but young. The books see him leveling up not so much in power levels (although that happens too) but in knowledge, knowledge of the secret world and how to live in it. Back to Stross. Bob becomes a progressively more powerful demonologist/necromancer, which means he gets pulled further into the secret world. New levels of secret world are teased, then shown in the next book, and so forth. It's incredibly satisfying to move along with Bob as he learns more about the secret world of the Laundry and its colleagues.
But back to our problem. CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. The problem here is that this event is a series-killer, at least unless Charlie does something incredibly clever. Because either it happens, and the series flat out ends - I mean, maybe he can morph it into a post-apocalyptic survival story, but that will change everything about it and jettison everything we like and identify with up to now. Or he can find a way to have them actually avert CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which will mean the big driver of the plot for the past five books, the thing that has lifted it above being a monster-of-the-week thing (like my own small work is, which is why I consider him so much a better writer, among other reasons) is, poof, gone. Again, series-ender. And the way he's built his apocalypse, the precursor to it - which is how you raise tensions, because clearly showing that we're entering CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is the best and easiest way (and now, almost the only way) to ratchet the tension up. But that precursor, specifically, means that the secret world is no longer secret!
And that's sort of what happens in this book. We finally lose the boundary between the secret world and the public world. Sure, the public doesn't get to know everything, or even much of anything about what's going on - but the existence of that world is no longer covert and can no longer be denied.
With that, there's a weird hollow empty feeling where The Laundry used to be.
I'm hoping that Charlie, being a smart guy, is aware of this, and that this is in fact another tactic to build up tension for a Big Reveal or Big Trick or Epic Climax in the next book or so. But if it is, it'll have to happen fast, because I gotta say, I don't think the Laundry can survive if the only thing separating it from the general public is government secrets about the nature of magic, when everyone in the world now knows it's possible (and an increasing number of people can and are doing it publicly).
I dunno. I hope I'm wrong.
Oh right, the other issue - the apocalypse. Stross sometimes seem to run into an apocalypse and then stall, maybe for years. In The Merchant Princess, (SPOILERS again) we had a fairly classic parallel worlds story, with not a lot of levelling up going on - and finally, after what to me was a fairly protracted period of boring medieval geneology politics, he actually had our world fight a nuclear war with the parallel world. Boom. Apocalypse. And...then what? Yeah, he stopped writing that series a decade ago; I don't think he knew, either.
Last thing. I identify with Bob Howard because he's a nerd. I also find the Laundry books fairly funny, because Bob is funny, and the injection of Bob's nerddom into the world of occult spying is pretty damn funny. I have to be honest, Mo isn't funny. Sure, she and Bob are going through a rough patch and her life is rapidly becoming hell, but she - unlike her husband - doesn't snark when things get tough, and I missed that stress relief all the way through the book.
Here's hoping The Nightmare Stacks (which I think is the title of Laundry #7) manages to either get this thing back on track, or take us into the Big Reveal.
UPDATE: Some days I really love the internet. Charles Stross, as @cstross on Twitter, responded to a tweet in which I posted this review. He tells me (and us): "you may want to look out for "Dark State" in Sept '16 -- it's the seventh Merchant Princess book. And yes, I'm ahead of you on the 'what happens after the apocalypse' thing."
I'm excited to hear it, ready to eat my skepticism above, and remain poised to throw money at him for the hardcovers of that and the next Laundry book. And also, flattered that he'd take the time to respond reassuringly. Thanks Mr. Stross (I call him Charlie in my review sometimes, but he don't know me from Adam so it's a bit weird when he actually talks back and seems to call for a bit more courtesy) - thanks for all the fun so far, and all the fun to come.