Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

We all knew that Charles Stross wouldn't be satisfied writing secret history forever. And so his Laundry Files series definitively shoves itself off onto an alternate timeline with this year's The Nightmare Stacks. Some nitpickers will note that the flood of superpowered people in the previous book, The Annihilation Score, marked the clear defining line for turning this series alternate. I agree with that, in theory, but Nightmare turns the heat up several notches to make large and permanent changes to the world -- this is the book that draws a line and says that nothing will never be the same again.

Every Laundry book sees Stross pick up a shiny fantasy/horror trope, examine it from all sides, and then tell us how it would really be (in his world, at least). The last couple have examined vampires (The Rhesus Chart) and superheroes (Annihilation Score), so perhaps it was inevitable that fairies would be next. Stross tends to agree with Pratchett in his conception of the Fair Folk, and to disagree strenuously with both Doyle and Tolkien. His elves are tall, slim, magically powerful people from an alternate universe, a branch of hominid development that is somewhat more eusocial due to developing language later. And they're also -- a touch like this is not uncommon for Stross -- embedded in a deeply unpleasant and Procrustean web of geases and magical compulsions, making their society the epitome of magic-enforced authoritarianism.

Their world is now uninhabitable, so they're looking for a fixer-upper planet to take over. Some time ago, there was a war that escalated, and kept escalating -- dropping an entire moon on the planet was an early gambit -- until one side called in nightmare creatures from between worlds. Unfortunately, those creatures don't make allies, and they don't leave, so now the surface of the elf-world has possibly a few cowering elves who haven't been killed yet and a whole lot of interdimensional monsters. The entirely of elfin civilization is one small military force in an obscure bunker off in what was the hinterlands of a major empire, mostly dreaming uneasily in suspended animation while their resources slowly run out. Their only hope is to go somewhere else, and their only plan is to conquer that place and rule it, the only way they understand living.

One of the viewpoint characters of Nightmare Stacks is the princess of those elf forces, more or less. Her name, or designation, is First of Spies and Liars: she's head of the feud-decimated tiny remnant of her nation's military intelligence agency. Her father is the commander of this single surviving military force, and so all of the magical obey-charms have devolved to pointing to him -- he's the emperor of the few survivors of his race. Her mother has been recently murdered by her father's second, very ambitious wife. And First is also deeply abnormal for her race: she has something that resembles a conscience and occasionally thinks of the needs and interests of people who aren't herself. Because of that, and because of her training, she's actually capable of lying, which is beyond most of her people -- when your brain is tightly controlled by a web of magical obey-spells, just doing what you're ordered to do is more than enough for most of her race.

The other viewpoint character -- who gets substantially more page-time, actually -- is somewhat familiar: ex-high frequency banker and still-new vampire Alex Schwartz, last seen in Rhesus Chart learning how to cope with his new abilities (and the transdimensional brain parasites that gave him those abilities). Since the magical apocalypse is looming ever closer, and the Laundry is now barely lurching from one near-extinction event to another, he's been thrown in the deep end very quickly and is part of the team evaluating several sites in Leeds for potential Laundry headquarters and/or defensible bolt-holes for when one of the now-inevitable CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios happens.

If all this is confusing, perhaps you'd like to see what I wrote about earlier Laundry books -- see the links for Rhesus and Annihilation above, and the novels before those (in reverse order) were The Apocalypse Codex and The Fuller Memorandum and The Jennifer Morgue and The Atrocity Archives. To be massively brief: this is a fantasy/horror series with SFnal rigor set in a universe where Lovecraft was almost entirely correct but lacked some imagination. Those horrible things between universes are both attracted by thinking minds and can be summoned by mathematical calculations -- so a world with a burgeoning population and geometrically-growing computer power is the equivalent of a huge neon sign saying "Eat Me." The Laundry is the UK government organization tasked with keeping them from noshing down. Like all such organizations, it's underfunded, badly organized, full of people who don't really want to be there, and dependent on tools and facilities that should have been upgraded decades ago.

And, in this book, the Laundry has to deal with a full-fledged magical invasion of Leeds, with flying dragons and battle mages and the lot -- all of them cloaked in seriously powerful charms and essentially lethal to look upon for any unguarded human eyes. Sure, it's a small military force, and the elf Emperor doesn't understand the real capacities of the people he calls uruk and intends to turn into his slaves. He has no chance to conquer the world; his forces will be destroyed eventually...but that eventually could easily be "after all of Western Europe is murdered."

On their side, the Laundry has a priest and a death-ray technician riding around on a Nazi armored half-track, a networked camera-cum-basilisk-gun system throughout the center city which has unfortunately been having target-acquisition problems, several outmatched but tough SAS units, and several overwhelmed mid-level bureaucrats who happened to be in Leeds that weekend. Oh, and Alex, who has been captured by First to be the first uruk-mage slave and the elves' key into what the Emperor thinks is the local mag HQ (that Leeds building that the Laundry is just beginning to set up). Luckily, the two of them have surprisingly convergent interests, and may have come up with a plan  cunning enough to save the UK...though they can't actually talk about the plan, due to First's geases.

Stross continues to expand and deepen this world; this is the second book in a row not to focus on his original series character, Bob Howard. And, frankly, Bob isn't missed here: the world of the Laundry has enough interesting spaces and quirky characters at this point not to need any one character to carry a book. Alex is a bit bland -- I would have liked to see more math-geekery, or finance-geekery, out of him -- but First is a great character, and I hope she will return in future books.

So I'll reiterate that this is one of the great SF/Fantasy/Horror series of our time -- I don't want to genre-type it any more specifically that that, though you can if you feel the need -- and that anyone who has ever enjoyed Len Deighton, Lovecraft, or Dilbert (or their cognates) should at least give it a try.

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