I think this is simultaneously my favourite and least favourite of the series so far.
Purely story and setting-wise – YES THIS SO MUCH THIS. As I think is pretty obvious from the name/blurb/book-cover… VAMPIRES. I do rather like vampires. Now this isn’t the most exciting treatment of them ever, not even close, but you know what? I’m not going to complain, because I got vampires and no one was dramatically angsty. This is a win as far as everyone should be concerned. All the things I said about improved pacing and plotting and Bob-not-being-a-smug-annoying-git still hold, and we get more exposition about the Laundry, get some more characters from within the Laundry… and a cat. There’s not a great deal to say on the positives because it’s just more of the same. The vampire thing? It’s great that it exists, and he slots it quite neatly into how all the Laundry stuff works, but it’s not the most exciting vampire thing ever. He could probably done a heck of a lot more with it, if I’m honest, and I’m hoping he will – there’s at least one character who could really do with being developed because they have so much potential to be adorable and wonderful.
Alas, however, I suspect we won’t get that. What I suspect we will get is the development of… okay spoiler warning, I guess. This crops up on page 30 (I just checked) and isn’t on the blurb or immediately obvious, so might count, but I don’t think it’s by any means a serious one. You’ve been warned. One of the new characters we get is a return of a very old mention, right back from tAA – Mhari. Now, the impression I get from the way the book plays out, alas, is that if anyone is going to get more page-time, it’ll be her. And this is annoying for two reasons. 1) I find her a really annoying character. She’s another of Stross’ women who are in HR (there’s a lot of them) and she’s just written to be half-way between trope and pain-in-the-arse. Which leads on to 2) how Stross (from Bob’s perspective) characterises her. She’s always “the psycho-ex”. She’s described in really really derogatory terms, coming from what is supposed to be a grown up, moved on and far more mature Bob than the person we last saw interacting with her in tAA. And for all that we can forgive to some extent the judgey awfulness because it’s meant to show Bob’s character… Stross at no point well… undermines it in any way. It never feels like the book wants us to roll our eyes at Bob being a moron/git. As far as I can tell, we’re meant to agree that she’s a “psycho” and pretty much low-level evil (like so many other HR ladies, in fact – does Stross just hate HR and think them all minor tyrants in waiting?) and feel sorry for Bob for having to deal with her. I know I’ve said I find her an annoying character, so this all sounds rather hypocritical. And I do. But… and this is where I stray quite far into “this is how the book feels to me” rather than actual, discernible things the author does… it doesn’t feel like her irritatingness is anything to do with her being a human being who is irritating. Then I’d just ignore her/grumble a bit and move on. It feels more that… she’s just a flat, tropey stereotype he couldn’t really be bothered to develop, and we’re not meant to be fussed about that at all.
I whinge a lot about the women in Stross, and I’m sorry it takes up so much of my posts, but I do find it annoying. It would have been so easy for him to make things so much better… there are several characters for whom a gender swap would make no difference to them intrinsically, but would make the whole series feel so much better. Yes, there are women who are capable. Most of them are in HR. The ones who aren’t feel so much like exceptions… why aren’t there female computational demonologists lying about? Would it really have been that difficult just to have one, to prove me wrong? And then in this book, we get a whole bunch of new male techno-whizzes, lorded over by a male super-techno-whizz… and then with two women in admin/HR/vaguely undefined but peopley-related roles. To the point where it is stated that all the male techno-folk had to take extra time to explain the maths to the woman involved in their thing. Stross this is getting silly, please stop, okay? Can you just not?
And rant over. For now.
On the plus side, I am (spoilers again) tentatively informed that the next book is from Mo’s perspective? I’m not sure how true that is, but if so, I dearly hope it does some work towards repairing the things that have been making me grumble so far… but I don’t really expect it will. I’m a pessimist.
Does all of this stop the book being enjoyable? No. I still liked reading it and didn’t want to put it down. I’d still read it again. But it just leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth afterwards, because it would be so easy to do better, in this book more than in any of the others.
Next up: NOT STROSS. I finally bought the sequel to A Natural History of Dragons and it was amazing.