The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files #7)
by Charles Stross
When Alex Schwartz took a lucrative job developing high frequency trading algorithms, he had no idea how literal his transformation into a bloodsucking vampire was going to be. In the world that Stross creates, higher mathematics open a gateway to Other Dimensions haunted by Lovecraftian beasties, including the V-symbiotes that invaded Alex's brain and gave him PHANG Syndrome (Person of Hemophagic Autocombusting Nocturnal Glamour), which, sadly, isn't yet covered by the Equality Act.
Acclimatizing to his new job in the Laundry, the super-secret magical equivalent to MI5, is never easy, but Alex entered the trade at a particularly difficult time: as the number of humans and computers increases, intrusions into the Dungeon Dimensions become increasingly common. As Alex learns,
"Training for the end of the world is an ongoing part of the job."
Right now, most of the Laundry is focused on CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the apocalyptic eventuality where magical saturation causes Cthulhu and Azathoth and all their friends to converge upon Planet Earth. However, The Nightmare Stacks takes a break from the looming threat of GREEN to focus on a NIGHTMARE of quite a different colour. While the previous book took on superheroes, this one combines James-Bond-style shenanigans with yet another geeky fandom. I can't tell you which--spoilers--but I can say that the results are vastly entertaining.
The Nightmare Stacks is a bit of a departure from the other books in the series because it has barely a mention of Bob Howard, arcane sysadmin and protagonist of most of the rest of the books. Personally, I was thrilled to get a new protagonist. Alex is a bit of a passive nebbish nonentity, but I found him rather more likeable than the Bob of recent books. The protagonist-- and NIGHTMARE-- switch makes this an ideal starting book for anyone interested in the series. (Apparently it depends heavily on The Rhesus Chart, but as I've not read it--it's the only Laundry book I skipped--and I got along fine, I think this would be entirely readable without the context of the rest of the series.) I did find the narrative style a bit odd, however; we're told this is Alex's journal, yet most of the story, including the Alex-POV sections, are told in third person. I admit to being a bit mystified by that.
Alex, our hapless protagonist, has more on his mind than PHANG Syndrome. His new employers are sending him to the last place on earth he wants to be: Leeds, his childhood home, where he's
Doomed to be dragged back into the infantilizing maw of his family's expectations."
Alex's interactions with his family are so utterly cringingly awkward that they induced sympathetic winces from me, as did his amusing attempts to flirt with his love interest, who takes the MPDG thing to a whole new level.
"Alex's experience of dating is similar to his experience of string theory: abstract, intense, and entirely theoretical due to the absence of time and opportunities for probing such high-energy phenomena."
I thoroughly enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on the amusing mundanities of Alex's life, but like many of Stross's book, at some point, the content switched over to extremely graphic and disturbing scenes of battle and slaughter. I've never quite figured out if all the gore was intended to be funny. I certainly don't find them so, but the scenes are liberally swathed in dramatic irony and Stross is peculiarly detached from the slaughter. I suspect the familial scenes and war scenes will appeal to vastly different audiences, and that plenty of other reviews will be complaining about the aspects of the book that I adored.
I find Stross reliably hilarious and The Nightmare Stacks was no exception. I adore urban fantasy and the way it mashes together the banalities of life with a genre-savvy take on traditional fantasy. Along with explaining how a salt circle traps mages and describing the intricacies of governmental PLAN PURPLE PEOPLE EATER, this book involves perhaps the most unique usage of a selfie stick I've come across. If you find Stross's unique combination of magic, maths geekery, Rube-Goldbergian bureaucracy, and bumbling spycraft as entertaining as I do, The Nightmare Stacks is definitely worth checking out.
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. (Thanks!) Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.