Friday, 29 June 2012

'The Apocalypse Codex' - Charles Stross (Orbit)

I've always thought that the current trend (I say 'current', it's been going on for years) for angst ridden, relationshippy (it's a word), Urban Fantasy is taking the focus off what Urban Fantasy should really be all about. I'm talking about a world just like ours where just a couple of details can turn everything on its head and make you think twice about walking down certain alleyways (even in the middle of the day). Luckily for me there are still people out there writing Urban Fantasy like this; I'm talking Kate Griffin, Mike Carey and Charles Stross in particular.

I've thoroughly enjoyed reading Stross' 'Laundry' series for years now and seeing how Britain's brave secret agents fight creatures from extra-dimensional space whilst dealing with the latest round of meetings and Civil Service budget cuts. Having worked in government I find this really funny because it's true (the bureaucracy I mean, not the extra-dimensional creatures...)

I was a little bit worried that things might be coming to an end when I reviewed 'The Fuller Memorandum' back in July 2010. I rounded off my review by saying,

'The end result is part smirk inducing satire and part chilling horror; a mixture that (despite some awkward moments) had me chuckling and shivering all at the same time. The ending of ‘The Fuller Memorandum’ could be one that either closes things off or leaves them open for another book. I’m very much hoping for the latter.'

I was really pleased then when a copy of 'The Apocalypse Codex' arrived and it was clear that things would continue for a little while longer at least. Throwing everything else that I was reading to one side (sorry 'other books that I was reading') I got stuck in straight away...

Despite himself, Bob Howard's star is on the rise within the corridors of the Laundry (a secret government department tasked with making sure that tentacled monstrosities stay on the right side of the walls of reality). Career fast-track and management training beckons but so does one more job and it may be too much for even Bob's ability to cheat death on a regular basis.
An American televangelist is taking rather too much of an interest in the Prime Minister and that's the one area of government that the Laundry cannot spy on. Freelancers are required then and it's Bobs job to report back with their findings. Sounds simple and it is... until things start going wrong and other agencies get involved. If, by any chance, Bob should survive what the Laundry has in mind for him isn't exactly a nicer alternative.

The original plan was to finish the book I was reading and then get going with 'The Apocalypse Codex' after that. As it turns out, I can't even remember the name of the book I was reading before I decided to give Stross' latest a little go. A few pages in and all of a sudden I was there for the duration. I even stayed up late last night so I could finish 'The Apocalypse Codex' on the train to work so I could get this review up today. It's that good.

Part of the appeal for me was that Stross appears to be of the mind that he is done explaining all the technical stuff that underpins this setting (stuff that has always slightly got in the way of what I've come to see). We've had a few books for it all to sink in and now it's time for the plot itself to have some room to breathe. It's a great move on Stross' part; his plots are normally brimming over with cool stuff anyway but the extra room allows things to ramp up to another level.
Basically, with 'The Apocalypse Codex' you're looking at everything that I've ever loved about this series with even more energy and surprises. You literally don't have the time to stop for a breather as the plot will run away from you if you're not careful; just when you think you have a handle on everything something will happen that casts everything in a whole new light. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end where Stross flips everything upside down and changes the game entirely (highlighting intriguing possibilities for future books, I think there will be more now).

The only thing that I would have a little moan about (maybe) is that Howard, his allies and his enemies all seem to be going after the same 'big bad' that they went after in previous books. It's not a huge problem at the moment but it feels like a pattern is starting to emerge when maybe a little variety would keep things fresh. The answer to that is probably along the lines of 'can you get any more bad than the big bad?' Probably not but it would be nice if we could see Stross try.

It's a minor quibble though when you have a plot that races along like 'The Apocalypse Codex'. Stross' vision of the occult arm of the Civil Service is familiar enough now to draw the reader in easily but there are still some nasty surprises in store to trap unwary characters and make 'The Apocalypse Codex' a book that you simply have to finish. My only regret is that I finished the book too quickly and now I have to wait for ages until the next installment.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Liesel K. Hill said...

Sounds great! I'll check it out. Thanks for the review! :D

Unknown said...

Nice! I just noticed the laundry Vault competition on the Orbit site - I'll have to give it a go and see if I can get my hands on a copy. I like it when true urban fantasy comes out of the woodwork, doing away with those pesky lovesick vampires and horny werewolves.

Dan said...

My copy arrived in the mail on Wednesday afternoon and I was up until midnight Thursday finishing it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but part of me feels that both the ending, and the explanation of what Lockhart's group does, are a bit weak...