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‘The Labyrinth Index’ amazes

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As a book reviewer, dealing with ongoing series can be tricky. Leaving aside the fact that you need to have started from the beginning – no mean feat when new books are constantly crossing your desk – you have to find ways to keep your own viewpoint fresh as an overarching narrative unfolds over six, eight, 10 books. So as a rule, I don’t usually wade into those waters.

But every rule has its exceptions. One of mine is Charles Stross and his Laundry Files.

The latest – the ninth in the series – is “The Labyrinth Index” (Tor.com, $27.99). In it, Stross continues his recent trend of allowing secondary characters to assume the heavy lifting duties of the protagonist, leaving series star Bob Howard on the sidelines for this one. This time, it’s Mhari Murphy, a PHANG-infected (DON’T call her a vampire) operative under the New Management of the Laundry.

(Quick Laundry Files primer: Basically, magic exists and is mathematical in nature. Computer science and advances in technology have greatly accelerated mankind’s learning curve, which just means that the many horrifying extradimensional beings hanging out in the universe next door have that many more ways in which to breach the veil and annihilate the world as we know it. The Laundry exists to keep those forces at bay, but they haven’t had much luck as of late.)

Mhari Murphy is a high-level agent working as the head of the British government’s Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs (i.e. the *wink* not-vampire situation). As one infected with PHANG herself, she understands the issues both practical and moral that come with that particular territory. She serves at the pleasure of Prime Minister Fabian Everyman, known to some as the Mandate and to others as the elder god N’Yar Lat-Hotep; he assumed power thanks to a desperate deal cut by the government to prevent usurpation by something EVEN WORSE during the Lovecraftian Singularity, if you can believe it.

But this new mission is a strange one, even for her. You see, it seems that something odd is going on across the pond in the United States. Apparently, everyone has forgotten about the President. And we’re not just talking about the individual, but the very existence of the office itself. There’s an Executive Branch-shaped hole in the American government – and the Prime Minister is very concerned with who (or what) might be angling to fill that vacuum.

And so Mhari is tasked with assembling a team to head to America. Said team has to be “clean” – unlikely to raise alarms when entering the country – and so the list she’s given by the PM is an interesting one, packed with people we’ve met before on other Laundry-related adventures. Superpowered cop (and Mhari’s lover) Jim, AKA Officer Friendly; tech whiz Brains; vicar-turned-Laundry operative Pete; Dungeon Master Derek with his inexplicable dice; and a blood-mage from another dimension named Yonquil who was captured during the invasion and might be on the spectrum.

With this largely-untrained group, all Mhari is asked to do is determine which part or parts of America’s own paranormal defense arm (known formally the Operational Phenomenology Agency or OPA, informally as the Black Chamber and REALLY informally as the Nazgul) is responsible for erasing the President in an effort to awaken Great Cthulhu. And, if necessary, to kidnap/rescue said President and get him to safety.

For a given value of safety, anyway.

“The Labyrinth Index” is framed as Mhari’s personal journal. Not the formal one she’s expected to keep to help maintain informational continuity should something happen to her, but rather her personal one – the one where she can lay out all of her doubts and fears and thoughts regarding just what the hell she has been thrust into. That first-person perspective has long been a highlight of these books, from the earliest days of bumbling Bob Howard right on through. Frankly, it’s a key part of what makes these stories so engaging – we’re part of the picture, rather than watching from outside.

The scope of the world that Stross has constructed over the course of nine books is impressive in both its detail and its vastness. It’s rare to experience such richly-realized fictional worlds; Stross has a knack for seamlessly bringing together disparate influences and making them work with an energetic harmony.

In truth, I always miss Bob when he’s not present in these books, but Stross has managed to incorporate his new heroes beautifully when it’s their turn to star. Mhari is no exception; we’ve dealt with PHANG-tagonists before, but she’s got a wonderful blend of competence and confusion that sits nicely with the tale being told this time around.

Nine books. That’s a lot. You would think that the conceit would start to wear thin, but instead, it only grows more robust with every installment. And what makes the Laundry Files outshine many of its contemporaries is the simple fact that one gets the impression that there’s an endgame in place. Whether or not that’s actually true remains to be seen, but the work Stross has done certainly SEEMS to point to a defined endpoint. The series doesn’t feel open-ended – a rarity for fantasy/sci-fi series with this kind of length.

“The Labyrinth Index” is a wonderful example of what the Laundry Files has become, a weird and engaging sci-fi/espionage mash-up with a thorough vocabulary of pop culture tropes and a distinct sense of humor about the whole thing. Charles Stross continues to do it up right.

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