Review of The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross
The Rhesus Chart
by Charles Stross
I didn’t realize how much I needed The Rhesus Chart until I started reading it, but almost from page one this was like a comforting cup of tea. See, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately—nothing to do with the quality of my reading material, more just not being in the mood to read and actively finding reasons not to read, which is so unlike me! But The Rhesus Chart is the kind of urban fantasy candy novel that I can’t put down. I wanted to read this on break, after work, before bed … I stayed up an hour past my bedtime to devour the last hundred pages of this thriller. This is why I keep coming back to Charles Stross over and over.
In this latest instalment of The Laundry Files, Bob Howard is in the middle of a mess that is somewhat of his own making. See, everyone knows that vampires don’t exist. So when an algorithm Bob has whipped up and runs against some test data from the NHS suggests an outbreak of vampirism … well, that’s a problem. It’s even more of a problem for the vampires in question (who certainly don’t exist). And meanwhile, Bob is struggling with his marriage. He and Mo have been doing their jobs for the Laundry for a very long time now, and it is taking its psychological toll.
The Rhesus Chart references another long-running urban fantasy series I enjoy, The Dresden Files. Much like that series, I find it difficult to come up with extremely new takes on the Laundry Files sometimes. Still, there are some elements I’ll highlight here to pique your interest.
First, the vampire thing. Stross handles this with his trademark combination of neurotic verisimilitude and British humour. He starts from the premise of “if vampires were real, how would they actually function?” and goes from there, and it’s really fun to see it worked out. Although some parts of the exposition get repeated a few times (grr argh), overall I like the pace with which he uncovers the backstory here. I complained in my review of the previous book that the first act dragged. That isn’t a problem here: the first act is intense, as Bob is on the hunt for this possible nest of vampires who shouldn’t exist, leading all the way to a false climax that then tips us over into…
… the second thing, which is yet another brush with mind-numbing bureaucracy. This is a hallmark of this series, of course, so you shouldn’t be surprised by this. Don’t you worry: Bob has his share of awkward committee meetings, overbearing employees, and insufferable twits. On the surface this is about laughs, of course, but once Stross reveals the identity of the villain behind the scenes (I’m pleased to remark that I worked it out myself a few chapters ahead of time, albeit perhaps not as soon as I might have), this satire turns into social commentary. Stross has more than once commented that the combination of the Scottish referendum and Brexit kind of created a massive political singularity and throws a wrench into his plotting for these kinds of near-future novels. When your real-life politicians are entirely human (we suppose) yet still monstrous, the “our leaders are monsters” take might not seem so original. What makes The Rhesus Chart more interesting, in my opinion, is how Stross highlights how clever psychopaths—vampiric or otherwise—can manipulate the layers of bureaucracy to shroud themselves in a secrecy no less obscuring than actual fog.
I’m also loving how Stross explores the stress that fighting the supernatural puts on Bob and Mo’s relationships. Lots of supernatural fiction explores this, of course. Not so much mired in it being an actual day job though. Ending of the book’s ramifications notwithstanding, the whole idea that Mo is just feeling done with being the Laundry’s wetwork asset is so palpable here. (I know the next book is actually from Mo’s point of view, so I’m very excited for that!!) Moreover, the telltale scenes in which Angleton, Lockhart, and the Auditor discuss how they tiptoe around this issue are so interesting. They remind us that when you reach a certain level in an organization like the Laundry, sometimes you have to choose between what’s best for your employee and what might be best for the world. Something like Angleton might have no problem making that call. But Bob? … Well, we’ll see.
The ending of The Rhesus Chart is properly explosive and dramatic. It upends a lot of the status quo. One of the constant themes of this series has been Bob’s rise within the ranks of the Laundry. Like many an urban fantasy series, Dresden Files included, power creep is an issue. I suspect that’s one reason why Stross is diversifying his narrators. Nevertheless, I am definitely … I don’t know if sad is the right word, but I’m moved by the departure of a few of the characters we’ve come to know over previous books.
This is another fun entry in the series. If you’re new, you could start here, but I would recommend going back, or at least tackle The Apocalypse Codex first. But if you were ever curious about how Stross would deal with vampires in the context of the Laundry, this book is for you.