After the false start to the new-style Laundryverse that was The Annihilation Score, Stross returns with what really feels like a second wind for the long-lasting series of novels about fighting the occult.
The Nightmare Stacks continues the basic premise of deconstructing fantasy genre tropes that began with the vampires of The Rhesus Chart and continued, albeit weakly, with superheroes in The Annihilation Score. This time, it’s about elves – faeries, the fae, the Unseelie, except given a darkly subversive twist – they are genetic human-ancestor offshoots predisposed towards magic (and psychopathy), united under a single rapacious empire bound together by an absolute hierarchical chain of geas-mediated relationships: a sort of feudal Japan gone off the deep end. They’ve long since destroyed their planet after they initiated their very own CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN scenario, and they’re planning to invade.
It’s a wacky, brilliant, and totally Strossian premise – the kind of demented twisting of fantasy tropes into something totally plausible under the worldview and parameters of the Laundryverse, while retaining some key elements from the original trope to maintain that sense of folk authenticity. I think the fluoric acid-spewing dragon riding bloodsucking geas-bound faeries of The Nightmare Stacks might be Stross’ most inspired fantasy riff so far.
There’s a new point of view character – none other than Alex Schwartz, the investment bank analyst turned vampire first introduced in The Rhesus Chart. Now a Laundry employee (with a massive paycut), Schwartz serves as our hapless, neurotic point of view character. Schwartz is socially awkward to the point of parody, and the sorts of things that occupy his attention are the eerily mundane worries of a 20-something year old still trapped in the cocoon of parental expectations and unable to get out.
Schwartz’s character is fresh – it might be said of him that he is Stross’ way of staving off the power inflation trap, of having a successively more powerful Bob face commensurately deadlier foes until they’re throwing buildings at each other or something. And Schwartz’s low base gives Stross space to have some sort of character development, which does happen with the introduction of Cassie, an enigmatic character that becomes Schwartz’s love interest and his impetus to step up to the demands of being a Laundry agent on the scene.
Of course, Cassie isn’t what she seems to Schwartz at first – and I won’t elaborate here – but cringey as their relationship could have been, Stross manages to pull it off in a sort of awkwardly sweet way, even if some of the leaps in the relationship do stretch the bounds of credulity at times. But hey, who’s to question puppy-love between two people inexperienced in its mysteries?
And as Schwartz’s and Cassie’s relationship develops, so do the forces of a desperate and dying elfin empire marshall in a last-ditch effort to save their civilisation by conquering another. The tenor of The Nightmare Stack’s antagonist is interesting and different because at no point do their efforts appear to present a credible existential threat to humanity – Sleeper of the Pyramid these elves are not, even if they are a rapacious bloodthirsty bunch.
But Schwartz’s and Cassie’s burgeoning relationship sets a parallel tone to the narrative conflict – turning it from a matter of threat and counter-threat to intimating the possibility of rapprochement – one that the attentive and careful reader would have extrapolated well in advance of its rather abrupt arrival at the end of the book. First vampires, then superheroes, and elves – humanity is going to need all the help it can get to battle the real horrors of the vasty deep, when they come in a torrent of necromantic energy that pours through the holes in the thinning void between universes.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 elfin cosplay outfits