Is Our Writers Learning? The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross (#SFWApro)

18211295The Rhesus Chart (all rights to cover image with current holder) is the latest in the Laundry Files series, about a British occult government agency that deals with the constant threat from Lovecraftian horrors.

The Story: Series protagonist Bob Howard is coping with a strained marriage (his wife is a kind of occult assassin). When his new data-mining program detects an improbable outbreak of disease, he successfully identifies it as an outbreak of vampirism, even though everyone at the Laundry knows vampires don’t exist.

It turns out the vampires are a group of data-analysts working for a major bank: computational logic and advanced math are a kind of magic and an advanced mathematical program has turned them all. The Laundry, rather than kill them, recruits them and makes Bob one of the people in charge. Which is complicated as one of them is a former Laundry official, and Bob’s ex-girlfriend. And it’s possible there are some very powerful, ancient vamps and sorcerers pulling various strings behind the scenes …

So what did I learn?

Don’t waste exposition on things the narrative already tells us. There’s a point about a third of the way through where Bob stops the story and (as he tells us) includes what he learned about vampires later. The trouble is, a lot of it is stuff we’ve already learned from the exploits of the vamps (they aren’t affected by garlic or Christian symbols), and the rest we learn later on in the novel. So what’s the point?

For me, funny fantasy is a tough sell. I don’t know why, as I write some myself, but it often falls flat for me. I liked the predecessor book, The Apocalypse Codex partly because I could believe in the bureaucracy at the Laundry: it’s convoluted and excessive, but not to the point I couldn’t take it as a functioning government agency. In this book, Stross is really trying to bring the funny, and I found it much less believable. Or, after a certain point, funny. He’s best when the humor derives from the world of software coding than from bureaucracy (I’ve read other books which treat magic as a kind of computer code, and they didn’t work for me, so it’s to Stross’s credit his magic system does). Of course this is more about my taste than about the book, but still.

Twists are tricky. Having given us a set-up where a group of vamps in banking plot to manipulate the market with their mind-control mojo, Stross switches direction midway through as the vamps come inside the Laundry and the plot turns to the puppet masters. There were some touches I really liked, such as the identity of one villain, but the switch drained the plot of a lot of urgency for a while in mid-book. And the comedy by itself wasn’t enough to cover it.

Be choosy in dropping names. One humor subplot is that Bob’s committee assigns him to research current vampire literature and see if it tells them anything, so he’s plunged into Laurel K. Hamilton, Anne Rice and Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. But while it’s true vampires show up a lot in the Dresden Files, it’s also not something I’d think of as a vampire series like the other two. So why pick Butcher rather than, say, Stephanie Meyers? Or multiple other authors who do vampire-centric series? It felt like a gratuitous shout-out (again, a subjective point).

This was a fun book, but not up to the previous series entry.

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Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Writing

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