Curiouser and Curiouser, Confusing and More Confusing – A Review of The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross

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“There is no such thing as vampires.” The idea of whether or not vampires can exist is something of a logic game for some people: can they exist without their existence being discovered? Some people have thought this through, and come to the conclusion that they can’t, because if they did, then we would know about it by now. This conclusion is generally arrived at by adhering to two of the more “popular” bits of vampire lore: that a vampire’s victim becomes a vampire itself after having been bitten, and that a vampire cannot drink from another vampire. Since every vampire needs to feed at least once a night, then one can, if one were so inclined, mathematically calculate the rate at which all of humanity becomes vampiric. This means, therefore, that one can guess at which point humanity would be forced to learn about the existence of vampires—and since we don’t know they exist, that means they can’t exist, both because we would know about them by now if they did, and because they are simply too unsustainable to exist in the first place.

But that’s only if one were to use the parameters of the lore that most people know about, lore that comes down to us from Hollywood B-movies and bad TV shows. If one goes digging, one learns that there are a great many possible variations for vampire lore. There are the many, many various iterations of vampire lore that have emerged in contemporary literature, any one of which could be true, but there are also the very old legends and folktales that gave the world the concept of the vampire in the first place. These are the stories that made medieval Eastern European villagers hammer stakes into dead bodies and shove bricks into their mouths, that made them take the skulls and put them between the dead person’s feet—all to make sure that the suspected vampires didn’t rise again. Using those parameters, is it possible to say, definitively, that vampires don’t exist? Perhaps not.

It is the question of vampires’ existence (or non-existence) that forms the heart of The Rhesus Chart, the fifth novel in Charles Stross’s The Laundry Files series. In fact, the statement “Everybody knows vampires don’t exist” is a part and the meat of the novel’s opening paragraph. However, for all that it’s an interesting question—not least because vampires were kind of the last thing I expected to read about in Stross’ series—this novel is not without its problems, problems which might very well be deal-breakers for some longtime readers.

The Rhesus Chart starts, as I mentioned above, with the statement “Everybody knows vampires don’t exist.” But as it turns out, that’s not quite true—at least, not when a small group of high-flying financiers in one of the UK’s most notable banks get turned into vampires after one of their number accidentally discovers an algorithm that turns them into such. And, as usual, Bob Howard gets to deal with the fallout from this mess: a mess that’s complicated by the fact that his marriage with Mo is on the rocks, and that one of the bankers is a person he’s tangled with before, and would much prefer not to tangle with ever again.

The first thing I realised, once I figured out that this novel was going to be about vampires, was that vampires didn’t prominently feature in the Cthulhu Mythos, which is the backbone of Stross’ world-building for the series. While I understand that the current popularity of vampires may have induced Stross to incorporate them into his series, I wasn’t entirely sure how he could make that happen. In any case, Stross did manage a workaround, and it’s one that makes sense in the context of his world, but I’m not entirely happy with the fit. Although the lore Stross has built for them in the context of his world is interesting (not least because of the benefits vampirism confers upon the serious magical practitioner), they still feel like marginal entities in comparison to, say, the Sleeper in the Pyramid, or even the Deep Ones. There are bigger issues that need attention, and given what happened in the last novel, The Apocalyse Codex, I was assuming that Stross would head onto, if not bigger, then at least more interesting, things.

Another thing that I found mildly irritating about this novel was the pacing. I normally don’t mind the frequent digressions that Bob goes into in order to explain how the Laundry works, even if he does this in practically every single novel. Each book is, as I understand it, meant to act as a standalone story, allowing a new reader to jump in at any given point without having to worry too much about reading other books in order to catch up. Most of the time, Bob’s digressions to explain who he is, what magic is, and what the Laundry is aren’t all that irritating; in fact, they’re rather mildly entertaining, as Stross rephrases the same explanation in new ways.

For some odd reason, though, Stross appears to do more digressions than usual in this novel, as if he’s writing for the completely, utterly clueless reader who might not have enough brain cells to put two and two together about his world. This is called “spoon-feeding”, and it is something that makes me cringe. Of course, that might be because I’m coming to this book as an old hand to the series, and as someone who’s been reading urban fantasy for a while now, and as someone who doesn’t really mind being made to work a little in order to understand what is going on. But I think there’s such a thing as going overboard with the information, and I think Stross has crossed the line between “delightful” and “irritating” in this regard.

It also doesn’t help that Stross tends to jump between point-of-view characters: Bob, who narrates in first person, and everybody else, narrated in third-person limited. This has happened in the other novels as well, but they remained tidy and controlled for the most part, remarkably easy to follow and with switches of point-of-view occurring at points that aren’t too jarring. In this novel, though, I think that Stross has gone a bit too far with the switches, making them occur in places that slam the brakes on the plot, or doing so a bit too frequently to be comfortable for the reader. It got to the point that I rather wished Stross had either stuck with the first-person, or just gone on ahead and written the whole novel in third-person limited, breaking the pattern of the previous novels. This restriction would have forced Stross to get a bit more creative with his narrative, I think, and as a consequence made the plot more interesting to follow.

As for characterisation, I’m not sure I’m happy with the way some of the characters were written. I’m particularly uncertain about Mhari, Bob’s ex, who was last seen in the first novel, The Atrocity Archive. In my review for that novel I expressed great displeasure at the way she was written, not least because the reader never really gets to know who she is and why she does what she does. It’s wrong to label a woman “the crazy girlfriend” just because she doesn’t conform to some misogynistic ideal of what a “good” girlfriend should be, and while I’m aware that it’s entirely possible that Mhari was a genuinely abusive person, I felt there was insufficient proof of that in the novel itself.

In this novel, the reader learns a bit more about her—and learns that, to a degree, Bob might have been right about her, in the sense that she’s not altogether “normal”. As it turns out, Mhari’s a bit of a sociopath, which translates very well when one is working in high-stakes finance, but doesn’t necessarily translate well in personal relationships. It’s not an excuse for all the “psycho ex-girlfriend” accusations that got tossed around in the first novel, and even in this one, but at least it explains why Bob was hurt the way he was, and why Mhari did what she did to him. Still, it’s a flimsy sort of explanation, not least because we don’t really see Mhari get the sort of development she deserves to be a real, well-rounded character. I don’t expect her to be “good”, in the sense of being a good person, but I do expect her to be a “good character”, in the sense that she’s treated as a person, rather than as a plot point. Unfortunately, she never really gets much past “plot point” in this novel, in the same way that she didn’t get past it in the first. This is, in my opinion, a terrible waste of what could potentially have been a great character, had Stross taken the time to develop her at least the same way he managed to develop Penelope Hazard in The Apocalypse Codex.

Aside from Mhari, though, I wish Stross had also taken the time to develop his villains. I understand that he was trying to obfuscate them as much as possible, instead of offering an obvious target in the same way as Reverend Schiller in The Apocalypse Codex, but it would have been more interesting to actually get to know the villains, if only so that the whole idea of vampires existing in this universe would have made a bit more sense. I also think it would have minimised the need for all those explanatory digressions I mentioned earlier, because developing the villains would have made a very good avenue for delivering the information without slowing the plot down too much. Also, more fully-characterised villains would have made the ending of the novel feel a bit less senseless.

For all its faults, though—faults in pacing, plot, and character development—this novel was still fun to read. It’s not as polished as some of the previous novels (particularly The Fuller Memorandum), but it’s still just as fun to read as long as one is willing to ignore the flaws I’ve already mentioned. Some of them might be deal-breakers for some longtime readers, but I rather imagine that something happened between the writing of this novel and its publication that gave Stross trouble: perhaps pressure from editors to rush it, or to change elements of it to make it more “accessible” to new readers? It’s hard to say for certain. But for all of that, it’s still a fun read, not least because of how it re-emphasises the idea that no one, not even the characters the reader knows and loves, are truly safe from danger.

Overall, The Rhesus Chart is a wobbly new inclusion to the series: problems in pacing, plot, and character development are likely to make longtime readers’ eyebrows disappear into their hairlines, and may potentially do more harm than good when it comes to getting new readers into the series. Stross tries to introduce vampires into his world, and manages to do so in a way that makes sense, but is unable to make them really feel relevant, as if they’re more of a sideshow in comparison to the far more interesting (and far more dangerous) entities out there that have already been tackled in previous novels. A few old characters are reintroduced, to uncertain effect, and new characters are brought to the fore that don’t seem to really do much, other than act as standing targets while other things happen around them. As for the villains, they could have used a bit more meat on them, especially given what happens at the end of the novel.

But for all of that, Stross still manages to make this novel readable. It might be hard to let all of its faults slide, but it’s still got its fun side—not least Bob’s narrative voice, where it’s allowed to shine through in the otherwise kludgy narrative. Hopefully this novel is just a speed bump, and the next novel—which is, purportedly, going to be Mo’s story about what happened to her while the events of this novel are going on—is a return to the style and storytelling of the previous two novels.

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