On My Shelves: The Nightmare Stacks

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Alex Schwartz used to be a programmer for an investment banking group, basically dedicated to finding new, more effective, more profitable, ways to analyze financial data and guide investments. His was a six-figure salary, the vision of ever-increasing bonuses, and a life mostly constrained by in-house geekery and a lot of pressure.

Then he programmed something a little too elegant and complex, and summoned something from the mathematical beyond that lurks just beyond the edge of everyone's normal reach in the Laundryverse. That "something" came to be called the V-parasites, and having them inhabit his body – and shortly after that of his whole little group in the bank – made them into what the Laundry code-named PHANGs, with an acronym whose direct translation varies but whose meaning never does: vampire.

Unfortunately, being a Laundryverse vampire doesn't mean getting fine evening wear, hot dates with bared necks, and all the other supernatural perks for free. A PHANG needs to feed on living beings – because their symbiotic V-parasites need to eat. Unfortunately, such feeding is almost inevitably fatal to the target (barring them having some sort of protection from brain eaters), so a Laundryverse vampire is an obligate killer. The V-parasites do provide many benefits, of course, including the ablity to perform mathematical summoning and other work (read: sorcery) without the risk that ordinary humans have of ending up summoning "eaters" that will munch out their gray matter, but that little catch of having to be a killer really makes it much less fun, if you have any pretense towards being a good guy.

And Alex really is a good guy. He doesn't want to hurt people. So now he works for the Laundry, having survived a real disaster when two elder vampires settled a long-standing feud in a way that nearly wrecked the Laundry and did kill the terrifying James Angleton, AKA The Eater of Souls.

Unfortunately, the Laundry may have offered a (creepy but morally at least contemplatable) source of blood, but they also offer a much lower salary, with no bonuses in sight, and the constant possibility of confronting hideous incomprehensible monstrosities as the world careens farther into CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

And now they want to assign him to Leeds. Which means he won't be able to avoid his family much longer, and how is he going to explain his sudden career shift… and his failure to even look for a suitable date?

 

Meanwhile, on a different world, The People are dying. The Dead Gods ravage their world and all their magic has not sufficed to drive their enemies back. Their only hope is to find another world, a safe world, where they can live, rebuild, perhaps one day return from in force. The All-Highest of the People directs such a world be found, and a candidate has. So Agent First of Spies and Liars is sent forth down the paths between worlds, to investigate what lies beyond and prepare the way for a desperate conquest.

And, at the same time, Agent First has to figure out how to do this without being framed and murdered herself, as she is the target of First Wife of All-Highest. If Agent First cannot get her own power-base – and avoid offending All-Highest her father – she may find herself wishing she'd died on her mission.

With this book, Charlie Stross puts the Laundry Files firmly into new point-of-view hands and gives Mo and Howard a rest, while keeping the eldritch horrors coming. Alex is in some ways a very refreshing change. He's even younger and more clueless, far less cynical even than our earliest contact with Bob. He's the closest to an ordinary person protagonist we've seen, and his view of the chaos and confusion of the Laundry in the aftermath of the loss of Angleton gives us a new perspective in just how much damage was done by that event, and the parallel and subsequent events of The Annihilation Score – even though Alex knows very, very little of either.

Despite all the gloom-and-doom inherent in the Laundryverse, however, this may well be the most positive of all the novels yet!

 

SPOILERS ABOUND

 

WARNING

 

WARNING

 

WARNING

 

GO!

 

In several of the prior novels, Charlie Stross was playing with different spy novel themes. In this one, he's going in a completely different direction – a very tropey direction indeed. The main plot is, literally, setting up an invasion by an army of magic-wielding elves on unicorns, led by an Elven Princess in Danger from her Evil Stepmother and Uncaring Father. The Elven Princess will have a Meet-Cute with the Innocent Young Hero of Untapped Power, and become his Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

This being the LAUNDRYVERSE, of course, all that is viewed through a Lovecraftian lens. The Elves are super-Nazi blood-bonded fanatics with a magically-enforced loyalty structure that makes the most devoted followers of humanity look lackadaisical. Their "unicorns" are flesh-eating monstrosities able to take on cars or trucks one-on-one. The Elven Princess is a murderous mind-stealing assassin who becomes the manic pixie dream girl because she absorbed wayyyy too much of the mind of Cassie Brewer, the girl she targeted as a source of information. And the elven army has alien dragons, giant basilisks, and an entire corps of ancient vampiric sorcerers…

With all this, it's still… a very positive book for a Laundry novel. Alex maintains his basic good outlook and tries to see the best in people. Cassie-the-First-of-Spies realizes how much better it could be to live like human beings, with the ability to make choices outside of magically-enforced obligation. Oh, the Laundry has its own plans to make use of the situation – they suspect more than Alex can imagine – but in the end how things work out really isn't in the Laundry's hands.

It's in the hands of a romantic, love-struck vampire and a renegade Elven princess.

The denouement is as fast-paced, lethal, and shocking as you might expect in the Laundryverse, and the matchup between the ancient, magical might of the All-Highest and his people and the high technology (with a bit of magical aid) of Earth is a devastating one indeed, frightening both sides with its shattering power and hellish potential for losses. Alex and Cassie have to find a way to put an end to the conflict… while satisfying the unbreakable geas on Cassie-First-of-Spies to obey and serve the All-Highest, who has no interest in co-existence with any such lower creatures…

I really enjoyed this one. I've enjoyed all the Laundry novels, and I love Bob and Mo, but I think this one was the most fun of all the series, and boy, is that going to be an important thought to take with us as we journey into the realm of The Delirium Brief…

 

 

Comments

  1. Bo Lindbergh says:

    Also included: a well-done Family Dinner from Hell.

Your comments or questions welcomed!