This is my first year nominating and voting for the Hugo Awards. In the spirit of being a good part of the voting community, I decided to read more short fiction. I believe this might be the first novelette I’ve ever read (at least knowingly) and I’m glad it was so good it earned a spot on my ballot right away. And holy shit, I need to read more by Charles Stross.
Published by: tor.com, 2013
Ebook: 65 pages
Series: Laundry Files #2.9
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: “Bob! Are you busy right now? I’d like a moment of your time.”
The “Laundry” is Britain’s super-secret agency devoted to protecting the realm from the supernatural horrors that menace it. Now Bob Howard, Laundry agent, must travel to the quiet English countryside to deal with an outbreak of one of the worst horrors imaginable. For, as it turns out, unicorns are real. They’re also ravenous killers from beyond spacetime…
I’ve never read anything by Charles Stross nor did I know what his series The Laundry Files was about. But fear not. No prior knowledge is required to be utterly creeped out and at the same time totally engrossed in this novelette.
I’m not sure how many words qualify a novelette and separate it from a novella. This certainly felt more dense than a 65-page story could be. Maybe it just goes to show how Stross manages to build up tension, introduce characters (and monsters!) in a way that feels neither rushed nor forced. Sure, I read it in one sitting and the only way you could have make me put it down was to tell me my cat was on fire (or something like it). But coming out of the story, it feels like I read a proper novel, there was so much in there that I enjoyed.
Bob Howard is sent to Ruralshire (yes, it’s really called that) to investigate what seems to be an infestation of unicorns. As he travels, he reads secret files on unicorns and their way of reproducing, in the shape of letters from H.P. Lovecraft. Needless to say, these are letters us muggles never got to see but they hold exactly the kind of horrors in exactly the kind of purple prose you would expect from Lovecraft. The back and forth between the flowery and terrifying words in these letters, and Bob Howard’s clear, modern, and sometimes funny narration, made for great pacing. Lovecraft’s letters weren’t exactly riveting until the unicorns appear but it’s worth pushing through these passages to get to the fun bits.
Once Bob has arrived in the countryside, more strange things happen. Charles Stross has set up his particular version of unicorns so well that I dreaded the moment Bob would meet one face to face. They are nothing like what we’ve seen on TV or in movies. They don’t sparkle, they are far from kind to virgins, and – being carnivorous – they don’t grant wishes or save the world from evil but would rather eat whatever comes their way. Charlie Stross has successfully ruined my childhood dreams of unicorns and turned it into the stuff of nightmares. But in a really good way.
I was very surprised how much I fell into the story. Urban fantasy (or rural fantasy, in this case) isn’t usually my cup of tea but the “secret branch of the government investigating the paranormal” seems to work for me, maybe because I still feel lingering love for the X-Files. At least when the narrator is clever enough to use both a magical ward and his technical equipment to solve the case.
But Stross doesn’t just give us one great protagonist and a truly disturbing kind of monster. He sets up the world as well, which is why this was so easy to read for someone who’s never heard of the Laundry Files. A sentence here or there sets up Ruralshire as the kind of xenophobic society that may not be likable but certainly believable. The few characters we meet in Ruralshire come equally to life through their actions. I found it fascinating. What usually bothers me a bit about short fiction is that there is never enough time to get to know the characters or the setting. In Equoid, I had no such problems. I felt a little lost at first, not knowing what the Laundry is but it becomes clearer throughout the story and I knew everything I needed to know to enjoy it. Plus, there’s the added bonus of knowing there is much more to discover.
I read this on tor.com and, like I said, it didn’t feel like it would be 65 pages in a print book. The tension builds up beautifully toward a satisfying crescendo at the end and I was surprised that I came to care about the characters. Needless to say, I put the entire Laundry Files series on my wishlist. Because if there is more where that came from, you can sign me up.
RATING: 8/10 – Excellent