LONDON CAN DRAIN THE LIFE OUT OF YOU . . .
Bob Howard is an intelligence agent working his way through the ranks of the top secret government agency known as ‘the Laundry’. When occult powers threaten the realm, they’ll be there to clean up the mess – and deal with the witnesses.
There’s one kind of threat that the Laundry has never come across in its many decades, and that’s vampires. Mention them to a seasoned agent and you’ll be laughed out of the room.
But when a small team of investment bankers at one of Canary Wharf’s most distinguished financial institutions discovers an arcane algorithm that leaves them fearing daylight and craving O positive, someone doesn’t want the Laundry to know. And Bob gets caught right in the middle.
This is the fifth novel of Stross’ Laundry Files, also known as British Bureaucracy Meets Cthulhu. It’s also the first I’ve been a bit disappointed by, but we’ll get to that. The Rhesus Chart deals with typical urban fantasy fare: vampires, but through the Laundry lens, giving it an extra bit of… bite.
Our characters are those we have grown used to, for the large part: Bob Howard, our humble narrator who has piloted us through four Laundry books already; Mo, his long-suffering, trouble-shooting demon-violin-wielding wife; Angleton, the elder evil summoned into a human host and seeing himself as having goals aligned with the Laundry… and completely gone native; the terror of the Auditors (different, but no less terrifying than, those of the Discworld); and the rest of the Laundry. We also see a few faces from much earlier books brought back into the fold, and some new faces, including a team of banker geeks who become vampires (obvious jokes made) and a frustratingly sexist portrayal of a vampire-hunter, “Marianne”, who is perhaps the most insulting character I’ve ever read in one of Stross’ novels, with her sex-and-death obsession and her very basic characterisation. The whole cast is, by now, perhaps a little stale and needs some shaking up, but The Rhesus Chart approaches this in a manner more akin to Martin than spy novels; blunt, brutal, and rapidly boring.
The plot feels similar; the Laundry Files might have slightly gone into stagnation at this point, as Stross capitalises on a successful formula: Bob blunders into trouble, makes the trouble more complicated than it was, then fixes the trouble while having his ass hauled out of the fire by Angleton. The Rhesus Chart follows this formula pretty much exactly, and while cracking digs at Anne Rice and Jim Butcher, it begins to feel as if Stross is also starting to follow their route of writing the same tired plots time and again, this time without even the element of pastiche that made previous novels so fun, nor the humour, which still sparks occasionally but is, for the most part, vanished.
The writing style is what really kills The Rhesus Chart. Stross has previously written the Laundry Files for a British audience, or at least it’s felt like we’re his primary target; British references go unexplained, Britishisms and institutions are simply dropped in along the way, et cetera. Here, that’s not the case; every Britishism has to be explained in exruciating detail, and sometimes more than once, which slows and stilts the book. What makes it more stilted is the repetition; descriptions, plot points, dialogue – all are repeated multiple times, on occasion to the letter, throughout the book, making it feel both padded and stale, as if Stross couldn’t think of a new way to express something or had forgotten that he’d expressed it barely 20 pages earlier.
The Rhesus Chart is, objectively, a pretty bad novel. But it’s also an incredibly moreish one, the kind of Dan Brown trash that you keep reading despite knowing how bad it is; and if that’s the level Stross wants the Laundry Files to be at, that’s fine, but I’ll stick with his older installments and leave the rest for others.