THE LABYRINTH INDEX by Charles Stross. Review.


Orbit, 354 page HC, £18.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

I suspect that many authors, when they embark on a series of books, never intended to. Certainly, amongst fantasy writers there is an intention of a trilogy, or more. Having expended time creating a world with its hierarchies and issues, why waste it in a single volume? For others, the series accumulates because the idea gets out of hand. This does not always turn out well. The first couple of books in Piers Anthony’s Xanth series were greeted with critical acclaim and although he still has a good readership amongst the teens, the idea that started so well in A Spell Chamaeleon has since become tired and at times silly. To keep a series prominent in the minds of the buying public, the characters and plot needs to evolve.

When Charles Stross embarked on the ‘Laundry’ series, beginning with The Atrocity Archives he approached it with a sense of humour. He was poking fun at the bureaucracy of the civil service. To the outsider, many government departments appear sinister with their own agendas that have nothing to do with the community they are supposed to serve. In this first novel, Stross had a light touch with a seam of humour running through it. As the series has continued, the plot lines have become darker.

In the early books, the main character was ‘Bob Howard’ who was basically an IT co-opted into the Laundry when he discovers things the public should not know about. By the time of The Labyrinth Index, the ninth book in the series, the situation has greatly changed. At the end of the previous book, The Delirium Brief, the British government had been taken over by an agent of the Elder God Nylarlathotep. The new Prime Minister has dissolved the Laundry but kept a few operatives on as useful staff. One of these is Mhari Murphy. She suffers from PHANG syndrome which means that for all effective purposes she is a vampire. The actual condition is caused by trans-dimensional parasites which, if fed blood, allow her to remain effective. She is a state executioner.

The United States has a different problem. Not only has the President disappeared but no-one understands that they should have one. The White House has been taken over by acolytes of Cthulhu who intend to awaken that Elder God. Dark magic has made a whole notion forgetful. The British Prime Minister, believes that if Cthulhu is awakened it will be the end of the world, while under his Master’s rule it will survive as humans have their uses. To this end, he delegates Mhari to put together a team to find and rescue the President.

While there are still flashes of humour, the tone of the book is one of desperation. Mhari’s team, mostly of non-combatant experts without experience of subterfuge know that even if they do succeed they may not survive. Stross does not pull his punches, any of the principal characters can end up as collateral damage.

There is plenty of action, the imaginative twists and turns of the plot keep the reader guessing. What is a little off-putting is constant reminder that the characters re civil servants. The jargon tends to be dense in places and has a tendency to get in the way the plot. Delightful, though, is the getting of Concorde out of mothballs.