Charles Stross, Equoid

At first glance, it’s easy to see why Charles Stross’ Equoid won such fan affection. After all, it’s stuffed to the gills with fanservice. A standalone novella tucked neatly into the existing timeline of Stross’ ongoing The-Office-On-The-Mistkatonic series of novels about the Laundry, it wastes no time letting the reader know that a whole bunch of sacred cows are going to get lovingly slow-roasted here. Target 1 is the the inspiration for the Laundry series, the man himself, H.P. Lovecraft, whose prose series protagonist Bob Howard bemoans endlessly as puerile, purple and prolix. Target 2 is sparkly unicorns, and by very short extension, the whole My Little Pony crowd.

And because this is a Laundry novel, terrible things immediately happen involving unicorns, little girls, H.P. Lovecraft and high explosives. In short, Howard gets bounced out to the countryside by his boss in order to deal with what looks like a joke: a possible infestation of unicorns. Of course, this being the Laundryverse (where contacts with other dimensional horrors are a usual occurrence, humanity has a nonaggression pact with the Deep Ones, and the Laundry is racing against the day when the unpleasant alien intelligences that devour civilizations finally notice we’re about ready to eat), the unicorns aren’t just cutesy unicorns. They are instead offspring of the entity Lovecraft called Shub-Niggurath, and which good old HPL had a disturbing personal run-in with back in the day. The situation rapidly spirals out of control, as death, destruction and mayhem ensue. Ultimately it’s up to Bob to save the day by doing something that might be described as “brave but incredibly stupid” – ongoing continuity could hardly have it otherwise – and learning something deeply unsettling. Along the way, minor characters are introduced and summarily bumped off, and Bob’s smug dismissal of Lovecraft gets turned into something perhaps a bit more disturbing.

Thus far, it’s business as usual for an entry in the Library series, except for one scene of truly disturbing sexual violence. Stross distances it somewhat by having it relayed in stilted language by a narrator-within-the-narrative. Even so, the moment is deeply horrifying, and it signifies that the jokey fun and games about Chulhunicorns is well and truly over. Readers sensitive to such material may want to give Equoid a miss, or at least approach it cautiously.

First published on in 2013, Equoid was nominated for a Hugo. Now Subterranean is releasing it in an elegant hardcopy edition. The cover art from Steve Montiglio is particularly striking, in a disturbing sort of way; looking too closely at it will yield spoilers, of a slightly stomach-churning sort.

Ultimately, there’s very little to worry at here. Fans of the more slapstick side of the Laundry series may be surprised to see precisely how dark this particular installment goes, but it remains recognizably and enjoyably a Bob Howard adventure throughout. Going in with one’s eyes open is advised, but beyond that, it’s a fast, enjoyable sample of much of the best the series has to offer.

(Subterranean, 2104)

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