The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross science fiction book reviewsThe Annihilation Score by Charles Stross

The Annihilation Score (2016), by Charles Stross, is the sixth book in his LAUNDRY FILES series. Stross has hit on an interesting way to keep a series from flagging. He created a super-secret agency that fights extra-normal entities and events, and by doing this, he has a stable of characters who can take the lead in given books. Most of the LAUNDRY FILES books I’ve read featured Bob Howard as the main character, although there were other POV characters. The Annihilation Score has Dominique O’Brien, Howard’s estranged wife, as the main character.

This review contains mild spoilers for the previous book, The Rhesus Chart.

There were many things I liked in this outing, and a different POV character was one of them. There were a few things I disliked and I was a bit surprised by how much I disliked them. Overall, Stross delivers another scary and fun paranormal thriller, chock-full of digs at bureaucracy and lots of humor, especially jokes at the expense of the pop-culture tropes we all roll our eyes at. Dominique — she prefers Mo — does have a different perspective on things than Bob, and that’s refreshing.

The Annihilation Score opens with a recap of a section of the previous book, The Rhesus Chart, this time told from Mo’s point of view, when she is called home unexpectedly from a Laundry assignment to find that Bob has installed another woman in the house. It’s all perfectly innocent, but Mo’s jealousy unleashes the secret weapon she carries: a violin made of human bone, the home of a powerful, murderous demon. Mo’s life is a struggle to maintain control of the demon, and Bob’s ex-girlfriend’s presence makes her realize just how precarious her control has become. The violin haunts her dreams, pushing for dominion every sleeping moment and most waking ones. Bob has also gone through a serious change, and not for the better. Reluctantly, the two separate. Mo has no time left to process this change, though, because she has a new assignment, starting — right now.

The conditions that herald the reality-wide catastrophe which the Laundry is attempting to prevent have now imbued regular humans with super-powers, and this is about as chaotic as you would expect. When Mo is caught both on Closed Circuit TV (and dozens of phone-cams) using her own powers to stop a super-powered person who is endangering lives, she assumes her career is over. She’s hardly “covert” anymore. Instead, the Laundry puts her in charge of a joint operation with the London Police, an office that will recruit and train super-powered people as law enforcers. Of course this joint operation is just a cover and a distraction for what the Laundry is really doing, but that doesn’t mean Mo doesn’t have to work for real. In fact, she has to sell it.

Much of The Annihilation Score is filled with the everyday headaches of setting up a new office and creating a team. It’s made more difficult when two team members are ex-girlfriends of Bob, and a third is a very attractive superhero guy. Where there are super-powered people there will be some whose goals do not align with society’s — supervillains — and in no time Mo is trying to track down and stop a powerful supervillain who is stealing a collection of very disturbing objects. Most disturbing is that Mo’s demonic violin keeps chortling that the stolen objects “are for me.”

And where there are random super-powered people, there are authoritarians whose impulse is to control, clamp down, and take draconian pre-emptive measures to maintain “order.” Mo struggles to find middle ground.

All this would be bad enough, but then Mo begins to develop a super-power of her own, at the least convenient time.

The Annihilation Score is complicated. It isn’t particularly fast-paced but it held my interest through the middle section. I think the potential tedium of the office politics is offset by the gnawing suspense of the murderous violin’s manipulations. Mo does learn to trust her team, and even has a couple Girls’ Nights Out with the exes, and that works well. She fears that the violin is wearing her down and she is right to fear that.

The way The Rhesus Chart took a look at the vampire craze, The Annihilation Score addresses superheroes. Stross has obviously listened to some women in his life who have talked about how, past the age of about 45, you become functionally invisible, and Mo’s emotions about this felt accurate to me. Stross also explained what the musical event called Night of the Proms is. I’ve watched Night of the Proms on PBS but never fully understood it until I read this book. The climax, the terrifying climax, of the book takes place at the last Night of the Proms. (And, if Mo and her team fail, it may be the last Night of the Proms.)

A lot of this book is about the use of various kinds of power, and I liked it for that. Mo’s struggle against the demonic burden she carries was suspenseful and grabbed me emotionally.

Where I had some trouble was with Mo’s attitude about her marriage and some of her behavior. Maybe I’m being unfair. Mo felt horribly betrayed when she came home unexpectedly to find Mhari, a vampire ex-girlfriend of Bob’s, in a robe and slippers in the family room. Her sense of betrayal fed the murderous desires of the violin, which apparently has always wanted to kill Bob. The two separate, but they are still married, and she still loves him. This doesn’t stop her from snogging the hunky superhero cop in the backseat of a limo. Really, Mo? I was very disappointed. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I wasn’t disappointed that she did it, because I can understand an emotionally vulnerable Mo giving in to an impulse or a temptation. I was disappointed that in later reflection, Mo never thinks very much about what that act means for her marriage.

This isn’t as trivial as it sounds; the Howard-O’Brien marriage has been presented as strong and healthy, even with the obstacles it faces. I understand that Stross is showing us how all institutions break down in the face of an impending crisis; but then show me. How does a loyal wife who fears her marriage is over, but hasn’t taken steps to end it, feel about smooching another man?

At the end of the day, though, this book has an intense, stay-up-too-late-turning-pages ending, lots of humor, and does plenty to position the series for the run up to The Big One… whatever that might be. The Annihilation Score has a strong, nuanced and convincing female lead. It delivers thrills, chuckles and plenty of good old-fashioned scares.

Published June 28, 2016. From the Hugo Award-winning author of The Rhesus Chart comes another supernatural case from The Laundry Files… Dominique O’Brien—her friends call her Mo—lives a curious double life with her husband, Bob Howard. To the average civilian, they’re boring middle-aged civil servants. But within the labyrinthine secret circles of Her Majesty’s Government, they’re operatives working for the nation’s occult security service known as the Laundry, charged with defending Britain against dark supernatural forces threatening humanity. Unfortunately, one of those supernatural threats has come between Mo and Bob. An antique violin, an Erich Zahn original, made of white human bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues—and her husband. And despite Mo’s proficiency as a world-class violinist, it cannot be controlled…


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.