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The Nightmare Stacks
by Charles Stross
Ace, $27.00, 400pp
Published: June 2016

I've heard so much good about the novels of Charles Stross (and, let's face it, he's won pretty much every science fiction award there is) that I was hardly going to say no to taking a look at this one, even though it's book seven in a series. The good news is that it works well as a standalone read, though I'm certainly going to go backwards and see how 'The Laundry Files' got to this point.

At heart, these stories, which started with 'The Atrocity Archives' in 2004 and now number seven novels and three novelettes, with two more novels on the way, are an intriguing combination of genres. They're generally set in a Lovecraftian world, in which eldritch horrors wait on the other side of gateways all too easily opened. To counter these terrors, a secret organisation called the Laundry employs a motley crew of talented occult operatives. And, given that any such secret organisation lives or dies on its secrets, it's all tempered with a sense of irony that will be recognisable to anyone who's worked in a large corporate entity. Perhaps the entire series grew out of the term 'bureaucratic nightmare'.

Stross clearly enjoys mashing up genres that wouldn't seem to be remotely friendly neighbours until you actually think about how cool that would be. Just to add to the fun, our protagonist, Alex Schwartz, who's a new guy at the Laundry, is a vampire, turned not by a befanged count in a cape but by an algorithm that trod just a little too close to magic. So much for his high-paying job at a merchant bank. Now he's pulling a government salary and trying to avoid having to explain that (and his new condition) to his parents, an entirely normal couple who only want the best for him, in all the standard cringeworthy ways. Is there a genre we're missing here?

Oh yes, high fantasy. I won't reveal who the enemy are this time out, beyond calling them 'the Host of Air and Darkness' (page 28 can't count as a spoiler, right?), but I will say that they're a product of fantasy via perhaps classic 'Doctor Who'. Their home, located underground on a planet beyond a portal, where they have waited out in hibernation the wars that wiped out the rest of their kind, seems at once appropriate and packed full of the sort of faceless corridors the BBC favoured so much in the eighties, budgets being what they were. It may be that Stross wrote this book entirely so that he could destroy much of the town of his birth in wild, fantastic style.

That town is Leeds, a city right in the middle of the north of England, midway between the coasts and nearly halfway from London to Scotland. I know it rather well and I got a real kick imagining the rampage that occupies much of the tail end of the novel. Alex finds himself dispatched to Leeds because the Laundry has plans to move north, for reasons that would surely make more sense if I'd read the prior books in the series, and it falls upon him to evaluate a cold war bunker for its suitability. This really isn't where he wants to be, as it seems far too close to his parents, who live in town, and he knows he'll be talked into going home.

It seems rather strange that the scene which stands out most to me in a novel about secret occult agents in a war against a fantastic race has to be the one where he goes home for dinner. Then again, the real joy in 'The Nightmare Stacks' seems to be the way in which Stross finds middle ground between two completely separate extremes. It's like he drew a Venn diagram with 'all things wild and wonderful' in one circle and 'the banality of human existence' in the other and figured out how to carve a book series out of that tiny almond sliver of crossover (by the way, I looked up what that shape is and that almond sliver is known as a lens). Here's a great example of that lens:

'Although Leeds grew as a city during the nineteenth century, its streets can hardly be described as a grid layout — unless the grid was designed by a species of alien space squid who hadn't discovered Euclidean geometry.'

And for all that this is espionage and fantasy and horror, this scene is straight out of Tom Sharpe. Alex is talked into going home to his parents' for dinner because his sister has committed to doing the same and she has things of her own to spring on them. Alex, wanting to avoid the usual questions about his lack of girlfriend, takes Cassie Brewer, a drama student he recently met in Whitby during a goth festival, who is actually someone who might come to fit that bill, as weird as she is and as weird as that sounds to him. The ensuing debacle is exemplary comedy writing, perhaps proving that Stross hasn't yet found a genre that is happy not only to shake his hand but to french kiss him into its secret club.

Many of the other scenes I'd love to highlight, whether for their constituent parts or how they play out, would constitute spoilers, so I'll restrict myself to praising the power structure of the Host, which works really well as a counterpoint to how the Laundry functions. For all that its organisational chart contains a fascinating array of talents, many of those talents don't work with scientific levels of accuracy, meaning that they're constantly having to figure out what and where, not to mention who and how. They get the job done, but in a reactionary way. The enemy, however, are compelled through an 'intricate network of magical bindings' to obey a strict chain of command that inherently updates itself when anyone dies. It's by far the most complex use of the concept of the geas, or unbreakable vow, that I've ever read. I'm a big fan of geas, because they appeal both to my sense of honour and my sense of nitpicking boundaries. They rarely end well, of course. Just ask Cúchulainn. Or Macbeth. Or the Host.

Book eight in the 'Laundry Files' series will be 'The Delirium Brief', due sometime this summer, so I don't have long to work through the rest before that arrives. I'm eager to do that, but I may draw up a chart of genre bingo first, just to see if I can think of one that Stross doesn't explore in these books. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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