The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’s “Laundry” series appeals to me partly because it depicts computer and math nerds (both of which I kind of was, at least at one time) as ‘wizards’ — I mean, literally, workers of arcane magic. One of the major premises of the series is that magic is a logical consequence of advanced mathematics. For example, if you conceive of certain specific mathematical constructs or algorithms in your mind, that it makes your brain attractive to a very specific kind of brain-eating creature from other dimensions (in fact, Charles Stross has vampires in his most recent books that came into being because a team of math quants working for an investment bank came up with such an algorithm, and thus became infected with what they’ve dubbed “V-Parasites”. His vampires are not quite like the traditional vampires of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, or of the more modern take of “True Blood”, but they are still recognizable as vampires. People who are skilled with math and/or computers can, if they are not knowledgeable about the ‘true’ nature of how things work, can accidentally unleash all sorts of creatures, or attract the attention of ancient horrors from other dimensions.

Another premise of his “Laundry” series is that there are various secret organizations in the world that know about this stuff, and who recruit people to defend their government or their nation or the world against all of the arcane dangers, many of which are connected to magic and the occult, and ‘hideous things from other dimensions’. The Laundry is the British version of such an organization. But what they most fear, and what they are almost certain is coming, is the end of the world. They don’t believe that they can stop it, but they sure as hell will try to delay it for as long as possible. And they have code names for all of the various improbably or close to impossible situations that they fear that can lead to the end of the world. It’s mentioned in just about all of the Laundry books — the end of the world is coming, it’s inevitable, and it’s probably closer than you might think.

Oh yeah, and the Laundry books can be very funny at times. The end of the world may be coming, but you can still have a laugh along the way.

Previous books in the series primarily focused on Bob Howard, and we watched his rise from a minor math and computer geek to head of The Laundry, starting in The Atrocity ArchivesThe Rhesus Chart introduced vampires into this world, including the character of Alex Schwartz, a quant who accidentally got infected with the V-Parasites. The latest novel, The Nightmare Stacks now focuses on Alex and how he is coping with his recruitment and training as a low-level Laundry employee, a ‘PHANG’ (the slang/acronym for a vampire), and a young man who feels isolated by both his top secret job and the secrets he has to keep from family and almost everyone else, and the stress of trying to actually have a social life without passing on his infection to others. He’s a young man who is dealing with all of the same problems that most young men do — meeting women, dealing with his parents, with the added difficulty of his total social awkwardness, plus the threat of accidentally committing treason by revealing state secrets, such as what he does for a living.

Alex runs into a young woman named Cassie on the street, a drama student who invites him to a show and after-party — they are performing “Dracula”. Being the socially awkward young man that he is, he doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that this young woman seems inexplicably friendly with him in spite of all of his awkwardness and geekiness. Meanwhile he has to deal with being temporarily relocated to Leeds, which is inconveniently far too close to where his parents live, so all of the excuses he’s been making so that he doesn’t have to deal with meeting the family with all of the secrets he has (such as his thirst for blood, his career change from over-paid bank investment analyst to an underpaid civil servant.  Oh, and yes, his lack of a girlfriend.

I can’t say too much more about this novel without giving stuff away. I know I am not doing a great job here telling you just how much I loved this book.  It certainly starts out slow, and it’s very hard to tell what direction the story will turn. But by the end, it is filled with action and surprises, and danger, and, yes, humor. There’s not as much humor in it as previous books, but it’s still a very cool book.

One thing I really like about this series is that every book seems to be so completely different from another. I have to admit that I was disappointed when Bob Howard, the character who was the focus of for the first several books, was shifted back, and his wife became the focus in The Annihilation Score. Well, the focus has changed again, and Alex is, to a certain extent, dealing with some of the same issues as Bob did in the early novels. So, in that respect, it’s similar to them. But as I said, each novel has a different style and structure to it. We’ve had a spy story, we’ve had a vampire story, we’ve had superheroes. Now this novel is more of  (and I guess this is a bit of a spoiler) is a story about an invasion from (as one character puts it) ‘Middle Earth’. And I did start to feel for Alex and for his various problems, and I really did get into the story, and it builds up to a rip-roaring climax. I really enjoyed this book.

If you want to really get into the series (And I heartily recommend that) I would start with The Atrocity Archives, and then keep on going. I have no idea how he will finish the series, because as I said, it’s all supposed to be leading up to the end of the world, and we get closer and closer to it, with things spiraling more and more out of control with each novel. Hell, I’m simply curious how the  world will deal with the repercussions of everything that happened in THIS novel. This is a series that will hook you and keep you coming back to see what happens next.

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