Mmm, it’s good to dip back into the Laundry Files universe for a little while. Charles Stross is in fine form with Equoid, a delightfully creepy take on unicorn mythology guest starring a young H.P. Lovecraft. Bob Howard is itching to get out of the office, and in a classic case of careful-what-you-wish-for, he gets sent to a country farm with a unicorn infestation. Zombies and tactical teams and chaos and destruction ensues.
The Laundry Files is a great series because Stross attempts to tell a monster story where the government knows about the supernatural and has an agency tasked to deal with supernatural threats. But unlike so many other fictional government organizations devoted to fighting the supernatural, the Laundry is not magically exempt from bureaucracy and incompetence. Not only does Bob have to deal with unicorn infestations, but he also has layers of management breathing down his neck as well. This side of the Laundry doesn’t take the foreground here, but Stross still manages some bureaucratic humour in the form of excerpts of requisition orders for unicorn-like shock troops. With each requisition, the refusal and cancellation by the Cabinet Office becomes terser and more irate.
No, Bob spends most of his time in the field here. His only intel comes from an outdated file with bits of H.P. Lovecraft’s private correspondence, in which he relates his encounter with an equoid brood queen during his adolescence. This is enough to give Bob an idea of the magnitude of the equoid threat. In typical Stross fashion, the situation is described in clinical, scientific terms. The Laundry might be fantasy, but it is hard fantasy, if such a thing exists.
Bob’s brief trip into rural England allows Stross to poke fun at some of the stereotypes of the country as well. Bob’s partner for this mission is Greg, a local Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs inspector with a Land Rover and an over-animated beard. He’s chummy with the people who own the farm under investigation, and from there Stross extrapolates all sorts of interesting country and village dynamics involving the owners of the farm and the local police. In some ways the village seems a little underpopulated—this being a novella, most of the action focuses on Bob at the cost of failing to flesh out many of the minor characters. But you get the sense that this is a close-knit community, which makes the horror in its midst all the more devastating.
The best and worst part of Equoid, however, is its pace. “Nonstop” does not accurately describe how fast this story goes. This makes for an exciting read. However, there is also a lot here, and while Stross is a dab hand at the exposition, sometimes it goes over my head simply from how fast it goes. This could have been a novel in another life—it works great as a novella, especially because the story stands alone and requires no knowledge of the Laundry Files. But even for a novella it is quite densely packed. It’s exactly what one might want from a novella on occasion: an immersive, powerful story with a sympathetic protagonist and a quirky supporting cast. Stross fans will recognize his usual, analytical style, and newcomers will find the setting accessible. Equoid is an equitable novella of Lovecraftian horror and unicorn nightmare.