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The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
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bookshelves: 2016-read

The Nightmare Stacks is Charles Stross’ latest – and seventh – instalment in his ever-popular Laundry Files, following on from The Annihilation Score. I’m a big fan of the novels and have read them all over the past couple of years, so the next release is always an event on my calendar. I love Bob Howard and find his point of view (no matter how unreliable, as Stross has said on many occasions) makes for refreshing and enjoyable reading. However, The Annihilation Score moved the narrative voice from Bob to his wife, Dominique “Mo” O’Brien, and it was a switch that didn’t entirely work for me. After reading that I was eager for the next release’s return to Bob, but discovered that The Nightmare Stacks wouldn’t be doing that, instead giving us a brand new point-of-view in Alex Schwartz, a character fans of the series will recall debuted in The Rhesus Chart…

As a note, and given that this is the seventh book in an ongoing series, please be aware that spoilers for previous Laundry Files novels are inevitable, so proceed at your own risk.

From the publisher:
Alex Schwartz had a great job and a promising future – until he caught an unfortunate bout of vampirism, and agreed (on pain of death) to join the Laundry, Britain’s only counter-occult secret intelligence agency.
His first assignment is in Leeds – his old hometown. But the thought of telling his parents he’s lost his job, let alone their discovering his ‘condition’, is causing Alex almost as much anxiety as his new lifestyle of supernatural espionage.
His only saving grace is Cassie Brewer, a student from the local Goth Festival who flirts with him despite his fear of sunlight (and girls). But Cassie has secrets of her own – secrets that make Alex’s night life seem positively normal . . .

With a career in banking over for Alex Schwartz following his infection with PHANG Syndrome (aka Vampirism) and the subsequent dissolving of his employer courtesy of Bob Howard, he is now the newest employee of the Laundry, the UK’s secret government organisation that deals with the strange, otherworldly, and downright odd. Oh, and paperwork, let’s not forget paperwork. With his induction into the vast array of information that the Laundry holds going well, Alex is sent to Leeds to oversee the refurbishment and relocation of head office, but ends up discovering way more then he planned, for CASE NIGHTMARE RED is on the way.

“CASE NIGHTMARE RED is invasion by aliens. The aforementioned excess of magic we’re making creates a signal that’s causally entangled with the human noösphere, the totalization of human experience that we generate and contribute to by thinking. This signal is detectable at a considerable distance by various entities, who interpret it as a flashing neon sign saying all-you-can-eat buffet here. They might be incorporeal parasites like my V-symbionts or the feeders in the night, or they might be physical invaders: but either way, we’re into necromantic War of the Worlds territory, which doesn’t end well.”
The Nightmare Stacks, Chapter 3

While the looming and in-progress threat in the Laundry Files novels to-date has been CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN (magic gets easier with more people doing it, and death, destruction and the return of the elder gods are inevitable), it’s a nice change of pace to move to something a little different, yet still ultimately connected to the greater picture. While the early parts of the novel help set the scene, from Alex’s ‘Dear Diary’ entries to the plot thread focusing on the Morningstar Empire and it’s plans, Stross really hits his stride when events take a turn for the worse. Action and peril come at the reader in an almost constant stream, though not without some excellent exposition of many aspects of the plot.

And it doesn’t end there – the characters are well-defined and complex beyond expectations. Alex is a good narrator when he’s in the driving seat, and Stross manages to introduce some old favourites to help him along his way. The fact that he’s a relatively new vampire is yet another interesting facet of his character, and the way that he deals with both the good and bad aspects of this help immensely in him coming across as a good guy in an unfortunate position. Stross also manages to convey a lot of humanity through Alex despite his newly found otherworldly powers. Speaking of which, Cassie is very much in a similar boat, a fish out of water in a world that is completely different to her own. But she’s likable from the moment she’s introduced despite some rather questionable actions on her part, and her transition into human society makes for some entertaining, interesting, and downright amusing situations.

With much having gone on in previous novels, The Nightmare Stacks is actually a rather good place to jump in to the world of the Laundry. It’s not perfect, and much of the bigger plot points from previous novels are going to be given away, but having the story told from Alex’s point of view, a newcomer himself, the reader gets to have a first impression once again. It’s not anywhere as in-depth as what we’ve seen form Bob’s stories and training, but it certainly suffices in painting the history in broad strokes. It’s also a startlingly simple refresher of what has come before, and does so without needless info-dumping or repetition.

Ultimately, The Nightmare Stacks is a return to form, bringing everything I’ve come to love about the Laundry Files in bucket loads. Not only is it an easy and quick read, it’s funny, action-packed, and answers some questions while raising plenty more. Personally I’m very much looking forward to seeing how Stross moves the world forward after the revealing conclusion here.
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Reading Progress

April 30, 2016 – Started Reading
April 30, 2016 – Shelved
May 5, 2016 – Shelved as: 2016-read
May 5, 2016 – Finished Reading

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