Back with a Fresh Look: The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

The Nightmare Stacks, seventh in Charles Stross’s ongoing Laundry Files series, once again takes us to the urban-science-fantasy-Lovecraftian-potential-apocalypse, this time from the perspective of Alex Schwartz—the young PHANG (read: vampire) who survived the nastiness at the end of the fifth book after having been drafted into the Laundry’s service. Alex has been given the task of checking out a bunker to repurpose for the Laundry up in Leeds, but things take a turn for the worse when he meets Cassie—and when an alien race of hominids who already ushered in their own tentacle-horror-apocalypse decide to come calling to our world instead.

Stross has been tackling a set of tropes for each of the books in this series, to great effect, and this time we’re up against elves. Pointy-eared, feral, terrifying, psychotic elves with a violently hierarchical society given to the enforcement of social rank through brutal magic. In short: they aren’t very nice and they do not play well with others. Turns out the overload of math-driven space-time horrors isn’t the sole threat facing humanity in the dawning days of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Some spoilers.

The thing I appreciated most about The Nightmare Stacks is that it recenters the narrative around a lower level employee-slash-agent of the Laundry. While we’ve grown accustomed as an audience to Bob Howard’s rise through the ranks, and also Mo’s, it’s been some time since we’ve had the point of view of a character who is not privy to high level national secrets. Alex, in fact, doesn’t even have the clearance for CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN when the novel begins—and as a reader, I’ve grown used to the sense that everyone knows about that.

It’s a pleasant shock and a reminder that Mahogany Row and the heads of the enterprise aren’t the folks on the ground, for the most part, though the strings are often being pulled from behind the scenes by their hands. In the earlier novels, while Bob is sinking deeper and deeper into the org chart, we definitely had that sense. We still maintain a strong attachment to the bureaucratic functions of the Laundry, as he and (in the last novel) Mo climb the ladder, of course, but it’s not the same as coming at it from a fresh young agent’s perspective.

Particularly one like Alex, who has been suborned into fieldwork without his knowledge of the consequences or possible pitfalls. We also spend quite a bit of time with Pete the vicar from the fourth book, as well as Pinky and Brains, the deeply qualified and scary programming dude-couple who Alex ends up moving in with as roommates. I’ve been fans of those two since the first in this series, so seeing them get more screen time was a pleasure. It truly gives us a fresh perspective on a world we’re otherwise getting comfortable with seeing from only one angle.

There’s also Cassie, a sharp take on the “manic pixie dream girl” and “elven princess” tropes—who is in reality a social and magical nightmare, teaching Alex rather delightfully the errors of his approaches and feelings about women as a whole. Stross is clever in representing Alex’s helpless, under-socialized terror of women without giving the audience the sense that Alex is in the right about his weirdness; it’s a pleasure to watch him learn to properly court someone who is ultimately also a direct challenge to all of his romantic fantasies once she stops pretending.

There’s also something hilarious about the fact that she, as Agent First of Spies and Liars, is convinced she’s honey-trapping Alex while Alex’s bosses are setting him up as the unwitting, hapless honey-trap vampire himself. Stross’s awareness of gender in these novels, often represented through the lens of his male protagonists who have things to learn on that score, is always a delight. The sense of the author making clever social commentary is never lost in the “Laundry Files” books, alongside the compelling plots, eerie horrors from beyond time, and space-Nazi half-track motorcycles.

And speaking of those things, The Nightmare Stacks is also a ridiculously good time. Stross maintains a sense of serious threat—the civilian death toll in this book is massive, sobering; he doesn’t shy away from that—while also making the reality of an incursion of space elves, being fought by both the British army and the young hapless Alex Schwartz with his rag-tag team of assistants, as fantastic as it should be. There is, after all, a scene of Pete and Pinky wearing classical armor, driving a half-track WWII motorcycle with a machine gun mounted to the back, and rescuing their vampire/elf asshole couple from the clutches of the invading army.

With a drone-strike to wrap things up.

The plot is gripping and the characters are, as always, rendered with utmost care, humor, and attention. There has yet to be an instance in which I felt unsatisfied in this entire series—and Alex as our new point of view protagonist doesn’t disappoint, either. I’m also immensely interested in the fallout for certain parts of the government discovering the existence of the Laundry and demanding answers. I’m wondering how the politics of that will flesh out, given our contemporary bureaucratic snafus and difficulties running basic government.

The fact that Stross is able to balance the absurd with the terrifying with the mundane in these novels is what makes them some of the best out there. The Nightmare Stacks is no exception: it’s fast-paced, bizarre, and expands the world and range of the Laundry Files in a fascinating way. Particularly, at the end, given Cassie’s ascendancy and demand for refugee status for her people. To be honest, I cannot wait for the next installment, and that’s a rare feeling for me as a reader. To be able to maintain it, and a fresh outlook, for seven novels—that’s quite a feat, and Stross manages it through technically skilled prose, excellent ideas, and compelling execution. Thumbs up, as always.

The Nightmare Stacks is available now from Ace Books.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. They have two books out, Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction and We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, and in the past have edited for publications like Strange Horizons Magazine. Other work has been featured in magazines such as Stone Telling, Clarkesworld, Apex, and Ideomancer.


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