What do you get if you cross middle-management bureaucracy, religious cult-based urban fantasy and science-fiction? Charles Stross’ The Laundry Files series, specifically, The Apocalypse Codex. Take one Bob Howard, Junior Secretary For Eating Of Souls, Fourth Grade (otherwise known as civil servant chinless wonder); add a Johnny and a Persephone, who may or may not be external agents working for the Laundry; mix with an evangelical priest who has popped in to see the PM and who has a bible with the eponymous extra-long and non-regulation section in the end; keep the Senior Auditor at the ready, stand back… and watch for the fireworks.
The Laundry is secret government department hell-bent (pun intended) in preventing otherworldly threats from infringing on the realm. They are just as keen on proper documentation and HR procedures. Bob used to fix their PCs, but has been fast-tracked for middle-management. You see, he’s already survived several adventures and his exploits have been notice by those upstairs. Along comes Ray Schiller, TV evangelist with a penchant for performing miracles and preaching in mega-churches. The external freelancers are sent to the US to put a stop to Schiller’s schemes and Bob is sent along to make sure things run smoothly. Which of course they’re not likely to.
Stross is one of the most prolific writers of science fiction and fantasy in the UK. As well as his standalone hard SF novels, he’s produced the SF Eschaton series, the space opera Saturn’s Children series, his near-future crime Halting State series, the Merchant Prince books which are science fiction/parallel worlds dressed as classic fantasy, and of course, The Landry Files series. He has published 17 novels in 9 years and countless short stories. He has at least 3 more in the works. He has nothing if not an incredibly fertile imagination. The Apocalypse Codex is no exception, although (and having not read the earlier books in the series) it did take me a while to appreciate it. You see, it’s a fairly formulaic story on the surface. It reads a little like a James Bond movie. There’s the exciting action sequence at the start to introduce Johnny and Persephone. Then there’s the bit at base where the job is given to Bob, although he’s kept in the dark about most of it. He’s then moved onto see Pinky and the Brain (read James Bond’s Q) for his special weapons. And then off on his adventure which is full of subterfuge, megalomaniacal plans and downright lies. Schiller’s MO is fairly standard too. He wants to perform a rite that will bring forth the end of days, saving the worthy, blah, blah, etc.
So why is this worth the read? There are three reasons. The first is Stross’ writing. As in most of his prose, it is witty, inventive, geeky, and is a bit of a page-turner. The second is his imagination. There is a (cliché alert) Lovecraftian feel to the horror that unfolds, which is always welcome. However, all it is the mix of the supernatural (witches and demons, for example) and science fiction as its explanation (parallel dimensions and such like) that makes it feel fresh. Finally, and most importantly: the characters. They aren’t the most original, but how they react is. In the modern novel or film, the horrors and the events that they come across are bordering on the realms of ‘so what?’ We’ve seen it all before and a lot worse at that. The characters, however, react if it were real. There is very little gun-blazing bravado; rather genuine horror and fear and shock that these events are occurring. There is a sacrifice scene, for example, which particularly stands out for the reaction of our protagonists.
Of course The Apocalypse Codex is dark, and funny, and exciting and action-packed. Of course it is full of lovely, geek-friendly references for fans of all the genres discussed above. Of course it’s well written. Of course you should read it.