Bob Howard (not his real name) has overcome a lot of things in the course of his work for the British government’s secret occult services agency, the Laundry. From a magic-wielding sect of modern SS revivalists, to fiendish mind-controlling cosmetics makers, to a demon-driven televangelist with designs on world power, Howard has faced down threats to human civilization. He’s also faced your garden variety zombies, vampires, and even the occasional unicorn (trust me, they’re a lot nastier than you think). He’s managed to do it while keeping his paperwork in order, navigating the complexities of a modern bureaucracy, and only sort of losing his soul.
In the Laundry Files novels, the British author Charles Stross has created world that is an entertaining mix of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books and the George Smiley novels by John LeCarré. To stay interesting over the course of a number of volumes, a series needs a good hook. Stross’s is his knowledge of life in the world of offices. You might think this would be dull, but his mastery of the lingo of the corporate world, from deliverables to leaning in to the muppet shuffle, gives his books a combination of bite and comic flavor. Stross adds to this an ability to riff on other writers in ways that give his books depth and variety. From Lovecraft to Tolkien, from Flemming to Deighton to Anthony Price, Stross has digested a wide range of writers and genres. The result is a narrative in which each new story is fresh and compelling.
At the center of it all is Bob Howard, the model of the sort of resigned yet determined British civil servant that has kept the island running since the end of the Second World War. Like many of the lower level operatives of the Laundry, Howard stumbled into the job. In the world of the Laundry Files, magic is a form of mathematics and doing the wrong formula, algorithm, or computer program can open the world up to the sort of eldritch horrors from beyond space and time that Lovecraft was fond of describing. In graduate school, Howard wrote a program that nearly summoned a malevolent major deity. After that, the Laundry made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
The last two novels in the Laundry Files have gone a little off model. In The Annihilation Score (2015), the main character is Howard’s wife, Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, another forcible inductee to the Laundry. It was not one of my favorites in the series, although it had some interesting plot points related to the ability of middle-aged women to become invisible (or to be rendered invisible by the male gaze). The Nightmare Stacks (2016) centered on another character entirely, and while it had a pretty entertaining take on Tolkien and elves, it didn't quite work for me in the way that some of the earlier ones did. I must admit to having been a bit worried about where this was all going.
The Delirium Brief, which was released just this week, brings it all together in a way that makes the previous books more interesting but also tells a compelling story in its own right. Stross brings back one of my most/least favorite villains, the demonically possessed televangelist Raymond Schiller. When last we left Schiller, he was trapped on a dead alien world after his failed attempt to raise a demonic entity known only as The Sleeper in the Temple. Now he’s back, and attempting a hostile takeover of the British government. Meanwhile, the Laundry is in crisis. The events of The Nightmare Stacks (only three months previous) left a significant body count and a swathe of destruction in the center of Leeds (neither one of which is good news for a secret government agency). Bob Howard and his fellow civil servants are faced with one of those “lesser of two evils” choices as their agency is privatized out of existence and the end of the world looms.
I originally thought of writing that this book was a return to good form for this series. But after thinking about it, I decided that it’s better than that. The Delirium Brief is an excellent book on its own merits. But, over and above that, it has the quality of making other books in the series better. If you’ve ever dreamed of saving this world, or if you’ve ever sat in a meeting that you thought was being run by a brain eating alien, Charles Stross’s Laundry Files series has a lot to offer.