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Our world is not as it seems. We share it with aliens, zombies, demonic spirits, with ancient god like entities that are all keen to eat our bodies and devour our souls. It's lucky then that we have the British secret service to protect us, more specifically a top secret branch of the secret service called The Laundry, why is it called the laundry? Because when it was first set up in Victorian times it was on the premises of...you guessed it... a Chinese laundry. This organisation is so secret that even the bosses at MI6 don't know of its existence. The point of the Laundry is to keep all the myriad of terrors endangering the Earth at bay by the careful use of science, technology and magic, magic being a little known branch of applied maths.
Our hero in this Lovecraftian spy thriller is Bob Howard an IT specialist and forensic demonologist working for the Laundry. Bob is married to Mo a demonic violin wielding exorcist special agent also working for the same secret organisation. When Bob's supervisor the enigmatic Angleton, asks him to carry out an odd mission and then promptly disappears along with a top secret document (the Fuller Memorandum) Bob and Mo get embroiled in a dangerous mystery involving Russian zombie assassins, otherworldly soul eaters, cannibalistic occultists and quite possibly face the end of the world.
This is not the secret service of James Bond, a better comparison would be the world of Len Deighton's Harry Palmer. Here a license to kill has to be countersigned in triplicate and have the right code number! Bureaucracy rules. Bob is no superhero in fact he is more of a geek than an intelligence agent. The story especially at the beginning relies a lot on techno nerdiness and this is emphasised at every opportunity and rather overdone, there is a little too much jargon and talk of mobile phone apps and PC subsystems but this is only a slight annoyance.
This is in fact the third 'Laundry' novel and it is slightly difficult to get into without knowing the back history from Bob Howard's previous adventures. There are a lot of references to other missions with all sort of ridiculous code names such as Club Zero, Bloody Baron, Case Nightmare Green which are not explained at first and initially make it difficult to engage with the story. Eventually the nerd speak is left behind and the relevance of all the missions is made clear in the latter part of the book. The story does gather pace and becomes a real old fashioned page turner.
The world that Charles Stross has created is a very inventive if rather scary. He has imagined a multiverse where most of the dimensionality of space-time is hidden from us and only partially accessible through the use of magic. It is magic that also allows us to manipulate and communicate with all the extra dimensional entities that live elsewhere. This is a very clever and compelling spy mystery with a huge twist. Some of the ideas in the book are simply bonkers and it this vibrant and bold imagination that makes the story great fun. There is also plenty of dark humour that makes the rather gruesome subject matter a little more palatable. For the horror fans we get a fine helping of demonic beings and satanic rituals complete with human sacrifices and cannabalism. For the spy thriller fans we have a slowly unfolding, updated cold war mystery involving the desperate search for top secret documents, which in the wrong hand could precipitate the unleashing of such supernatural powers that the our very existence could be at stake. Stross makes good use of mundane London locations and by adding new frightening dimensions to even the most normal to our eyes suburban alleyway. The constant battle between our reality and the aliens in the alternative multiverse makes the story both compelling and entertaining.
Overall this is an enjoyable read and can be read as a stand-alone story although I would certainly be keen to try out the earlier books in the series. Fans of well written horror like H.P Lovecraft, Clive Barker or even the period mysteries of Lucifer Box written by Mark Gattis will enjoy this. It is written with the same outlandish confidence and vivid imagination that will delight the reader. Fans of more traditional spy thrillers will also enjoy the cold war thread in the storyline.
I suspect that we haven't seen the last of Bob and Mo and they will be back slaying demons without too much delay in the next book of the series.
A slightly shorter version of this review appeared on Bookbag.co.uk.
'The Fuller Memorandum' by Charles Stross can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £4.79 (p&p included) at the time of writing this review.