Bob Howard is back and added to his normal foes (modern management practices, office politics, the org-chart, work-life balance, Lovecraftian horrors trying to eat your brain) is the prospect of privatisation of public services. Of course, many public servants in post-GFC Britain have faced the prospect of having their jobs replaced by private contractors in the name of efficiency (though oddly often at higher costs) but unlike Bob, the move doesn’t usually threaten the very fabric of reality.
Since The Rhesus Chart, Stross has taken a different approach to the Laundry novels. Where the earlier ones four novels pastiched specific spy/espionage novels, the more recent three let the Laundry premise stand on its own strengths but had it intersect with tropes from other fantasy genres (specifically vampires, superheroes and elves). In addition, Stross has introduced other key characters and let people other than Bob take centre stage (in particular Mo, fellow agent, Bob’s wife and owner of a demonic violin).
With The Delirium Brief, the series shifts another gear. Where the events of one novel had a light touch on the next one in the previous stories, The Delirium Brief requires more familiarity with the series as a whole. In particular events and characters from The Fuller Memorandum and The Apocalypse Codex play a major role in the story. Bob returns as the main narrator but the assembled cast from the more recent novels play bigger roles as co-protagonists. This is The Avengers movie of the Laundry novels but with more genital parasites from another dimension – an ensemble cast doing spy-stuff against a cosmic threat.
Aside from these structural changes, the book is what you expect from a Laundry novel. Left-leaning, snarky, IT/office-work jokes, Stross’s genuine love of spy-craft, cosmic horror played as international intrigue and some big set-piece action sequences. While the past three novels were good, the tone of the narration works much better with Bob. However, having a broader base of familiar characters gives the story a bit more emotional depth.
I wasn’t so keen on the sexual-exploitation themes of the main villain. Yes, this was a bad person doing bad things but at times the writing pushed into tittilation/exploitation. Nor was there a strong plot reason for it – indeed it required characters to repeatedly note that this element was out of character for the villain.
The political framing of the story was both topical and (as Stross has noted) somewhat overtaken by events. The British government being parodied is the bumbling rightwing cynics we thought they were prior to the Brexit referendum rather than the evil incompotent clowns that have been revealed since. So no Boris Johnson analogue and no Donald Trump jokes. However, Stross doesn’t hold back on pointing out how Tory ‘auesterity’ policies have gutted important aspects of British life and made the country inherently more fragile.
Witty, snarky, spy-thrills fun.