Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Review: Season of Skulls by Charles Stross

Completing the Eve Starkey trilogy, the sorceress finds that following the dictates of the New Management will lead her into a perilous trip back into the Ghost Roads lurking in her family home.

Over the first two novels of the Eve Starkey trilogy, Dead Lies Dreaming, and Quantum of Nightmares (the 10th and 11th books in the Laundry Files-verse), Stross gave us a view of life in England after the apocalypse from a perspective far removed from the titular Laundry Files organization. Eve and Imp Starkey, heirs to magical power and influence, over the first two novels dealt with Eve's boss, and the legacies of her boss, trying to escape the traps on several levels that Rupert has left his former assistant. Through these novels, we get introduced to a host of ideas, ranging from the mysterious Ghost Roads lurking in Eve's house, to the worst supermarket deli section ever committed to media

Now, in Season of Skulls, a capstone to this trilogy within the Laundry Files-verse, Eve must deal with the wishes of the New Management directly for the first time. And what they want is deceptively simple. They want the head of Rupert, who is not dead, but very much alive.

The problem is, to stop Rupert's latest schemes, Eve will have to reenter the Ghost Roads and face him and his plots in a 19th century England that never was, but could very well influence the present. And try and escape a geas that Rupert puts on Eve. Rupert is a planner and has been planning things for a very long time. He is totally a Leverage style Mastermind and Eve will have to gain allies and use all of her cunning and dare to stop him from...

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While the first two novels had a balance between Eve and Imp in terms of screen time and narrative, Season of Skulls is very much Eve's story. Fans of Imp and his little gang of supervillains are not going to find much traction here. On the other hand, this novel's much more precise focus on Eve and her travails  gives the author a chance to really develop her as a character.

The heart of the book, where most of the action takes place, is in the Ghost Roads first seen in Dead Lies Dreaming. Eve does not go to Whitechapel 1888 London in this venture into the Ghost Roads to stop Rupert and his schemes (and the whys and hows she chooses to go there and her gambits, are secrets for the reader to uncover (quaerendo invenietis!). But once she is there, Stross introduces a kaleidoscopic magical alternate version of 1816. Some of it is really clever on its own, with motifs and references and ideas taken from a variety of genre ideas and being mixed together wonderfully.

But the real piece of invention is The Village. Yes, THAT Village, the one with the big weather balloon and Patrick McGoohan trying to escape from a succession of Number Twos. What in the world is The Village doing in 1816? That WOULD be telling. Stross is a clear fan of the series and not only uses the setting, but also happily lifts dialogue and imagery from the series. (what the fantasy version of Rover is, in this Village is BRILLIANT and I want to steal it for a RPG scenario somewhere). Our Eve is of course dubbed Number Six.  As far as who Number Two is, much less Number One, the answers will not surprise the clever reader. But they are...

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And then there is the other mainline of this 1816 ghost road dreamverse, the Regency Romance portion. As longtime readers of the Laundry Files are well aware, Stross introduces a variety of subgenres and tropes into the various Laundry Files novels. It's a way to keep things fresh, its a way to allow him to write different books in the same universe, its a way to explore an ever more complicated and complex universe from a perspective far beyond the original concept of a IT nerd getting roped into facing Cosmic Horrors.

So the Laundry Files has had, by my reckoning, done spy novels in a couple of different flavors, vampires, superheroes and supervillains, corporate dystopia, and straight up Urban fantasy sorcery in the Eve Starkey books themselves. Here, in this Ghost Road 1816, Eve finds herself in a narrative, in a story, one she recognizes and has to fight the conventions of, and work with the conventions in order to stop Rupert.  I am not a heavy reader of Regency Romance, having read only one example of a pure Regency Romance book (and it is itself a deconstruction of some of the tropes), although I have read authors who have borrowed from those tropes before, notably Mary Robinette Kowal. Here, Eve's immersion into those tropes comes with her recognizing and commenting on the tropes all along the way, so that even the most casual of readers can recognize what is going on, with the meta-commentary running in Eve's head.

There are lots of fun references and ties to the other novels, including a return of one of my very favorite secondary characters in the entirety of the Laundry Files-verse, Persephone Hazard. Persephone is basically Stross' tribute to the character of Modesty Blaze. (Persephone's former code name was Bashful Incendiary (get it?)) and a potent sorceress with her own agenda that also made me think a bit of McGoohan's David Jones. In this novel, under the New Management, she has been given a title and no little responsibility under his dread Majesty. She's doing well, as well as anyone can in this new Britain, anyway.

In terms of worldbuilding, Stross has a lot of fun and expends a lot of energy on not only the 1816 Ghost Road-verse, but the whole concept in general. The idea was sort of there in the first novel and we get Eve, Imp and company delving into the dangers of that place. But aside from places to hide dread books, what GOOD is the Dream Road-verse? What can it be used for? Stross explores these ideas winningly here, and I was reminded in many ways of the work of Borges, and of William Gibson's The Peripheral, among others. Even if the realm that Eve and Rupert are contending with is not the "real world"  but does it have potential impact on the real world? Absolutely. It helps make what Eve and Imp have been doing as caretakers of the House (and their entrance to that world) all the more important and serious for the potential for mayhem and mischief if a sorcerer of power, such as Rupert, might get up a scheme to go into the past via the Dream Roads. What Rupert winds up trying to do, as mentioned as a Mastermind, makes him a well rounded villain, with quite a scheme up his head. A scheme that will not only involve Eve but also...

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There is also more background to the entire universe, that helps clear up the whole timeline of why The Magic Went Away and how The Magic Returned. With this volume, the sequence of events from about 1800 to the present is now very much clarified for those who really are curious about the grand arching history of the Laundry Files universe and how it got to be in the shape that it is in. 

Does the Eve Starkey Trilogy end with a HEA (Happily Ever After) for Eve, as is the convention for many Regency romances? Remember that in the end, this is Britain after the apocalypse under the New Management, and no one is ever truly in a secure situation. Eve does go through a lot in her face off against Rupert, and even if she doesn't get all that she wants, she gets what she, in the end, earns, and perhaps more so. While I initially found Imp and his gang of supervillains more interesting in the first novel, this third novel really does reinforce that this series of book is Eve's story, and ends it rather well. Even within the narrowed expectations of a long series such as The Laundry Files, Stross continues to try and innovate and explore subgenres and ideas and this novel, as the third in that trilogy, winningly accomplishes that.


  • Persephone Hazard is back!
  • Great use of a new subgenre to explore the Laundry Files-verse
  • Lots of clever worldbuilding
Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

 Stross, Charles, Season of Skulls, [Tordotcom, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.