Review: The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross

Good grief, nine books into the Laundry Files and Stross is still creating these weird, tense thrillers without really ever repeating himself. The novels have gradually shifted from clever pastiche to exploring their own premise. Accompanying that shift has been the move from a story about a low-level civil servant (Bob Howard) stumbling his way up the promotion ladder to a focus on other characters. Bringing in other voices was important for plot reasons but it wasn’t always wholly successful.

This time the narrator is Mhari Murphy, who has been a supporting character through several books and acquired a bad case of vampirism in The Rhesus Chart.  Joining her are several supporting characters from earlier books including ‘Officer Friendly’, the superpowered police officer from The Annihilation Score.

With each novel, Stross has increased the threat level and since the chaotic invasion of Leeds in The Nightmare Stacks by transdimensional elves, society is now well aware that supernatural beings are an ever-present threat. Britain has naturally elected a Lovecraftian horror as prime-minister but at least a charming and respectable looking one. The USA meanwhile, has deeper problems — its supernatural intelligence agency has gone rogue and has aligned itself with an insectoid Cthulhu. That’s about the limit of the satirical dimension to the story (aside from some jokes about people being ‘woke’), which focuses on an extraction operation in the US (led by Mhari) that goes haywire.

Unlike previous novels though, the bad guy’s scheme is made clear from the beginning. There’s not a slow uncovering of what the sinister forces are up to. Instead, it is Mhari’s operation that is kept hidden in the manner of a heist plot, as various pieces and personnel get into position. That makes for plenty of action and intrigue but despite the innumerable chittering horrors, the book lacks the creeping horror of some of the earlier books (or in the novella Equuoid). There are some creepy moments (sleep-starved Secret Service agents attempting to avoid sinister being glad in silver body suits) but an inevitable consequence of making the hidden lurking threats more imminent is to make them less scary.

Plenty of Lovercraftian espionage thriller action as this series heads towards its own apocalypse.




13 responses to “Review: The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross”

  1. I think one key thing that drives urban fantasy with a male character is humor, and once that character levels up too far and becomes a demigod (Dresden) or some eldritch horror (Bob as the Eater of Souls), humor becomes less of an option. Stross had Alex in the The Nightmare Stacks as a Bob surrogate but now, obviously the levity is thin on the ground given how far along Case Nightmare Green is. I felt this lack beginning as far back as The Apocalypse Codex. Imminent end of the world threats start to go stale if they are constant, especially since UF for me at least is meant to be light-headed at times. This is why I’m looking forward to

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    • I read quite a bit of urban fantasy, both with male and female protagonists. I like a lot of male protagonist urban fantasy, whether Jim Butcher, Simon R. Green, Ben Aaronovich or Rob Thurman (who is the big exception here, since her books don’t have a whole lot of humor. Still very good though and vastly underrated). But I could never get into the Laundry Files series, probably Charles Stross’ fiction just doesn’t work for me.


      • Stross does seem to put some people off. One person in my book club says that Stross makes them feel stupid (they are clearly not stupid). I feel like if I want to experience the despair of Grim Meathook Future I can reread Peter Watts.


      • Stross doesn’t make me feel stupid, his style just doesn’t work for me and I cannot connect to his characters at all.

        Green is really good BTW and has written urban fantasy, epic fantasy and space opera.


  2. Sorry, I’m trying to write this on my phone. I’ve been looking forward more to the new Rivers of London book from Ben Aaronovitch than the latest Laundry Files because Peter remains painfully human. And the humor remains.

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  3. I really liked it. There are all the separate plots, which could be utterly confusing, except Stross writes well enough that they aren’t. Even with all the flashbacks, too.

    RPF, I did think there was humor here and there. Not as much of course, but a number of the offhand descriptive phrases made me laugh.

    I didn’t like Mhari a few books ago but she’s quite good here. Most men can’t write women worth a damn, but he can.

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  4. I liked it, but I’m thoroughly hooked. I may have all of the Laundry novels in hardcover (“may” being the operative word since I still have a ton of books in boxes [possibly literally]).

    I did see Charlie say on his blog that Bob’s powers made him more difficult to use as a character. I’m not entirely sure I agree; one of the commenters pointed out that Bob’s struggles with the issue of his own humanity could be interesting. We may see later on. That does appear to be why he’s using other characters (Mo, Alex and now Mhari) as his narrators.

    I also owe Charlie a debt for introducing me to Alan Furst (in the afterword [?] to one of the early novels).

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  5. Lots of fun. I’m not usually big on technological details, but for some reason I feally like Stross’s aircraft infodumps here and in The Nightmare Stacks. I also think he is getting better at American characters.

    This time he touched on something that’s been bothering me since The Atrocity Archive, If the universe is full of life, and any sentient species is capable of releasing horrors that can eat the universe (or a significant chunk of the multiverse), not just a planet, then Cthulhu and the Black Pharaoh are the least of our worries. No matter what humanity does, it won’t matter if some magic user in the Crab Nebula screws up

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  6. After a bit of authorial maneuvering to get all the elements into place for the last couple of books, I think this kicks the End Times off into high gear. I loved the way elements set up books earlier are now coming back, and coming together, in a frankly quite scary pattern. I think he’s predicting 3 or 4 books to wrap up the main sequence, but isn’t ruling out some side-stuff after that.

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  7. I found any number of delightful bits, including the creative use of a Concorde and the notion that somewhere in the multiverse there are forces so scary that Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep are in retreat from them. (Oh. My.)

    The last couple of volumes, I’d been worried that Charlie had written himself into a corner, but The Labyrinth Index shows I need not have worried.

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