THE DELIRIUM BRIEF is the latest book in the long-running Laundry Saga by Charles Stross. The Laundry, for those unaware of it, is one of the Neo-Mythos stories which have emerged in the past decade or so that has a postmodern take on the Mythos. Peter Clines, Ruthanna Emrys, Anne Pillsworth, myself, and a few others are similar. In the case of Charles Stross, it's combining the stuffiness of being a British Civil Servant as well as computer programmer with the oncoming end of the world by ooogie-boogies.
I either love the Laundry or I hate it and it's a testament to Charles Stross' skill I'm usually veering between the two because of the emotions his stories bring. I admit, though, to not being a big fan of the previous two novels. They weren't ones I actively hated, unlike THE JENNIFER MORGUE, but they had issues which bothered me long after I finished the story.
THE ANNIHILATION SCORE had Doctor (Dominque) "Mo" O'Brien as its heroine while doing a unsucessful parody of superhero novels which seemed at odds with the stories' general spy vs. squid premise. It also made numerous controversial choices in portraying Mo as an adulterous spouse to her deeply devoted protagonist husband, which was never going to go down well. THE NIGHTMARE STACKS also veered away from the series' traditional protagonist with a social anxiety suffering hypochondriac having a "manic pixie dreamgirl romance" with an invading Nazi elf woman.
We're thankfully back with Bob Howard, programmer/demon hunter/civil servant/host for a minor god of evil, once more in the driver's seat. Bob has changed a lot since when he first signed up for field work and has been uncomfortably promoted to management. Unfortunately, that's come right at the time the Masquerade (to cop a term from White Wolf) has officially been broken and the world is now aware of the supernatural. I'm iffy about this action as Charles Stross has chosen to portray the world as less, "nothing will be the same again" and more like the Tyler family from the 9th/10th Doctor era where humanity seems too damned stupid to care about it being real.
Charles Stross is on the record that The Delirium Brief was strongly influenced by the U.K's choice to exit from the European Union. While the Brexit is never directly mentioned, much of the book is an apocalyptic (literally since it may lead to the end of the world) look at the dissolution of the Laundry in order to have them privatized by American companies. Companies which, in this world, are controlled by a Christian-themed monster cult that combines the worst of eschatology and quiver full doctrine with the desire to end the world by giant monster pyramid on Mars. Honestly, given some of my (as a fellow Christian) relationships with people like this--that's not that unbelievable.
The book is a fascinating story with Bob having far more trouble dealing with testimonies before Parliament, budgets, and the sudden loss of privileges he never thought would vanish than the many monsters they fate. While I would have liked Bob and Mo to discuss the events of The Annihilation Score rather than simply reconcile their marriage--that's not what the book is about. It's all about the dangers of bureaucracy in the Laundry's world.
The characters all play off of each other in an interesting way with Bob's terrible ex, Mhari, having become one of the most interesting characters in the story. I was also glad to see the return of Persephone Hazard, the Laundry's erstwhile Modesty Blaise substitute, and how her "blow them up and let God sort them out' attitude plays off against everyone else's doomed efforts to deal with politics in a legal way. When the government is completely corrupt and/or stupid, though, what is your recourse? Especially when the apocalypse is looming? The answer isn't one which someone like Bob can stomach and that's what makes it interesting.
The action is good, the villains hateable, and the character development good. After the previous two books, it feels like we've returned to the original Laundry Files that attracted me. Could I have used a bit more Bob and a bit less Brexit parody? Yes, yes I could have. Still, I was about to give up on the series and this made me reconsider it. The Laundry Files and Dresden Files remain my two go-to urban fantasy series and I'd hate to lose either.
The ending is a huge game-changer for the entire setting and relies a lot on continuity points from the previous books. We see the return of characters I thought were permanently out of the story. It also bodes dark things for the future of the story. I was a bit disappointed the ending was the Laundry resorting to the same tactics which characters from a Michael Bay movie would involve but, otherwise, this was an excellent urban fantasy thriller.