The Annihilation Score

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Annihilation Score: A Laundry Files Novel by Charles Stross.

In my review of the previous Laundry Files novel I accurately speculated that “further volumes will see the role of narrator passed to some junior character.” I did not, however, expect that character to be Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, the wife of the protagonist of the first five volumes. Mo is Bob’s “junior” in the Laundry by a short while, although she is older than him and more intellectually accomplished. This book takes place during their “trial separation,” while their respective sorceries are behaving incompatibly. At first, I wondered if author Stross would sufficiently distinguish Mo’s narrative voice from Bob’s, given the peculiar combination of the Laundry environment: civil service, espionage, and soul-shearing horrors from outside of our universe; but he did succeed.

Where the comedic element of other Laundry books was largely supplied by Bob’s geeky sense of humor, this one managed to offer a wealth of absurd circumstances, centering as it did on an epidemic of superpowers, and the social consequences of villains and vigilantes in “pervert suits.” Unsurprisingly in a book narrated by Mo, the other chief concern was her escalating conflict with the diabolical enchanted violin which has been her professional tool and curse since the first stories of the series.

A key theme of the book is the differences between intelligence work and policing, with much attention paid to the formation of a police culture. Although the book is set in 21st-century England, this American reader could not help but reflect on the currency of the topic relative to our current spate of news about abusive and murderous police behavior. The public dialogue in the US could probably benefit from a conscious consideration of the “Peelian Principles” which have been foundational to the British Commonwealth’s conception of domestic policing since the early 19th century.

Stross is not quite as sharp here in his references to 20th-century occultism as he was in, say, The Fuller Memorandum. In particular, he invests both Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare with musical abilities that the men did not possess. But these are throw-away allusions not intrinsic to the plot.

With this sixth novel (and at least two more projected), have the Laundry Files earned the right to be compared to Harry Potter? Both are supernatural sagas in self-consciously British institutional settings. Rather than Voldemort, Stross presents us with CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, an incipient “magical singularity” or thaumaturgical armageddon that is a growing threat throughout the series. When The Atrocity Archive was published, I think the idea of a screen version would have seemed pretty far-fetched. Now, I suppose that the BBC should be recycling half of the creative team from Torchwood into work on an episodic Laundry series.