Saturday, September 16, 2017
I took a sabbatical from work a while back and among other things used it to catch up on my reading. I tried the "Odd Thomas" series and rather liked it but quit after the first three books, as they all read like the same book after a while. Fellow with psychic powers communicates with the dead and saves the world, repeatedly.
I don't want to sound too snarky here, as I think Dean Koontz did a masterful job with characterization and tone in the series. Odd Thomas is likable, memorable, nice but not dull. His dry and understated reactions to the wild things that keep happening to him really make the books worth reading, and the people he meets who help him on his journey are not just afterthoughts but interesting characters in their own right. After a while though the series began to pall on me; in spite of the good writing the books were simply too much alike.
Then I took a flyer on another series, one I'd read about on the TV Tropes website. It's the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross. Home run! Man, these books are good. Stross is a British (Scottish, actually) science fiction writer who has at least two series and several standalone books to his credit. The only books of his I've read are the Laundry Files works, which I think are lighter in tone than his other work - this series is a long way from being all fun and games, however.
Unlike Odd Thomas this series has evolved over time rather than stalling out. The first book, The Atrocity Archive, was written as a standalone novelette but was eventually published in combination with a sequel story called The Concrete Jungle. Concrete Jungle won an award, publishers got interested and Stross wrote a second book, then a third. The series is now up to eight novels and several short stories. Initially each book had the same main character and narrator, Bob Howard, an IT guy who got pulled in by the Laundry when his doctoral thesis came a bit too close to summoning evil critters from other universes.
The Laundry is the nickname for a super secret organization in the British government, dedicated to saving the world from Cthulhu type monsters who get into our universe through rips in space-time. It's all about math, really. If you make the right calculations, especially using computers, you can summon all sorts of creatures you wouldn't really want to be in the same room with. The books are a combination of Lovecraftian horror, spy fiction, scifi and Dilbert workplace humor; it's a strange combination but it works better than you'd think.
When Stross began writing the books were intended to be pastiches of various writers of spy fiction (the second one, The Jennifer Morgue, borrows heavily from Ian Fleming). He's used the series to riff on other genres as well; The Apocalypse Codex has a character based on Modesty Blaise (her codename is BASHFUL INCENDIARY) and The Annihilation Score examines superhero conventions. The later books switch to other narrators and points of view. Stross has said that the series seems to be evolving into a Discworld scenario, including different genres and switching off on main characters from book to book. This really keeps the series fresh and different. Not all the books are equally successful. I personally think the two weakest are Jennifer Morgue and Annihilation Score. But they're all worth reading and I highly recommend the series.
It's the characters that make these books work. In the world of the Laundry, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is coming - the end of the world. Cthulhu type monsters do exist, but God does not. Stross is an atheist and he makes that very clear in several of the stories. He's also said many times that there will not be a happy ending to the series, and indeed the latest book, The Delirium Brief, is the darkest yet. But the characters' interplay, relationships and commitment to fighting evil ensure that this series is anything but unrelieved nihilism. That wouldn't be the least bit fun to read, and these books are fun. My favorite character is James Angleton, Bob's boss. He's a mysterious and scary managerial type, a master spy who's been around for decades without growing a day older...
If you want to find out if this series is something you'd want to read, some of the short stories are available for free. You can find The Concrete Jungle here and Overtime, a Christmas story, here. Enjoy.