I am, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, wary of long-running franchises. There are a few I persist in following anyway, like the Dresden Files and Honor Harrington, that nevertheless exhibit clear signs of eventually stagnating or losing their way.
Still, these have earned some benefit of the doubt from me, and another one of them has been the Laundry novels by Charles Stross, about the exploits of the British secret service in charge of defending the country and the world from occult menaces from beyond.
I’ve commented in my articles on the previous three books that the series has seemed to be stalling out somewhat. The Apocalypse Codex seemed to come around for another go at the same scenario as the book before, the Fuller Memorandum. The Rhesus Chart and the Annihilation Score meanwhile suffered from continually reusing the same plot point of rooting out an enemy within which the series had already done to death. And the sense of escalation toward unknowable menaces from beyond space and time seemed to plateau out in favour of smaller campaigns against half-related threats.
In addition, the series wandered from its main character, the geeky and sardonic Bob Howard, to other point of view characters, and gave the villains point-of-view chapters, which rather undermined the effect of Bob’s comic voice on the one hand and undermined the shadowy horror of the enemy on the other hand.
But Bob was in oversight in Apocalypse Codex and Rhesus Chart, and his wife Mo was the main character of the Armageddon Score. But in the new book, the Nightmare Stacks, Bob doesn’t appear at all.
In the Nightmare Stacks, the main character is Alex Schwartz, a top-flight computer whiz recruited by the Laundry in the Rhesus Chart after becoming the victim of a daemonic possession called PHANG Syndrome. By the Laundry novels’ definition, he’s a vampire. Along with other members of the Laundry, including several friends of Bob’s, he’s involved in the cleanup efforts after the Laundry was gutted by its various moles. In the process, he’s being brought further into the Laundry’s tangled web, and learning more of their secrets.
The particular one that haunts him as it does the rest of the Laundry is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the code name for when, as H.P. Lovecraft would have it, “the stars are right” and reality begins a period of distortion and accessibility to cosmic intelligences of alien malice.
However, we learn, there is a whole slew of CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios, and another one, CASE NIGHTMARE RED, has arisen – invasion by alien civilization.
Seizing on an opportunity presented by the breaking down of cosmic barriers, the survivors of the Morningstar Empire, an alien-fey civilization, determine to leave their dying world, laid waste by some of the cosmic horrors mentioned above, and invade ours, conquering it to forestall their own extinction.
The All-Highest leader of the Empire sends his daughter, his spymaster, to assume a human identity and infiltrate the leadership. In the end, she ends up enticing Alex, but in so doing she finds that her assignment may also be her only chance to survive out from under the shackles of the geas spells that bind everyone in her society.
Fundamentally, the problem I’m increasingly having with the Laundry novels is a sense that Stross started this escalation of cosmic menace – what the third book called ‘a hierarchy of horrors’ – but that he (or more probably, his editors) decided that the escalation was happening faster than they wanted, and now he’s making up new spinoff plots to draw this out longer. The introduction of CASE NIGHTMARE RED annoyed me, because of its sense of ‘wait, forget about that thing we’ve been building up for book after book, look at this instead!’
That said, the book also overcame a lot of my other complaints. It isn’t following the plot of finding a mole – one of the main characters, Cassie the spy, is trying to become one, but it doesn’t pan out that way. Moreover, despite losing both Bob and Mo at this point, the supporting characters that are sticking around are ones I like, and I like Alex. And not just because we share a name. His story of trying to find purpose in life and his self-hatred over his condition makes for an engaging read. In a strange way, the scene featuring his family drama was touching and supported a theme of human goodness, as contrasted against Cassie’s origins, as well as the pettier side of humanity as shown, somewhat, by his parents. On a larger canonical note, it’s kind of interesting that, whenever Bob is mentioned (having moved up the ladder of the organization) Alex’s reaction is a lot like Bob’s reaction to his boss Angleton in the early books.
I am also, as I’ve occasionally hinted in the past, a sucker for redemption stories, and Cassie goes through a very persuasive one which I really enjoyed. She’s quite a charming character – her little tic of answering “Yesyes” instead of just “yes” is weirdly cute and she and Alex make a sweet supernatural couple. At the same time, she’s no damsel and is the one to finalize the solution to the crisis.
On the flipside, the Morningstar Empire is very disturbing. In the classic Laundry fashion, they’re a crossover of modern technology and mysticism. They are essentially alien elves, with many of the more sinister of the tropes of the Fair Folk. It kinds of reminds me of the elves in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Discworld sub-series. They have ‘dragons’ and ‘horses’ which are merely conventional names for something much scarier, and the brutal system of subjugation-by-magic they employ is genuinely scary as well as repugnant. While in the past books giving point-of-view time to the villains reduced their scariness, the buildup to the invasion and its progress is chilling, suspenseful and heartbreaking as we skip to innocent people – airline pilots, police, cosplayers at an anime convention notably – being wiped out by the invaders and even our occult defenses misfiring.
Okay, so in summary this is a good book, no doubt. While the series at large has begun to try my patience, and this continues with the book’s cliffhanger ending, it has a feel-good element I appreciated, good characters and makes use of events of past books to build this one. I haven’t heard a peep out of the Dresden Files or Honor Harrington series for a while, but in the meantime, the third of my favourite long-runners triumvirate is soldiering on.