The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross
In my review of the LAUNDRY FILES book before this one, The Annihilation Score, I noted that there was a lot I liked and a few things I disliked. Unfortunately for me, my experience with The Nightmare Stacks (2016) was the reverse. There were a number of things I enjoyed, but overall I didn’t like this book very much. Charles Stross is a smart, funny, inventive writer, and it distresses me to give this book two and half stars, but it just missed for me, big time. Please note that people on Goodreads are giving it four and five stars, so clearly other people are enjoying more than I did.
I’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation outlining my — haha, no, that’s a joke, because Bob Howard, of earlier LAUNDRY FILES books, hates PowerPoint. Oh, wait, Bob doesn’t show up here in The Nightmare Stacks at all. Instead Alex Schwartz, a mathematical whiz-kid who worked for an investment bank before he became infected with vampirism (trading one sort of bloodsucking for another) is our main character.
The LAUNDRY FILES delights in mocking bureaucracy (something that’s missing from The Nightmare Stacks). In my best bureaucratic fashion, let me present this review in the form of a report at a meeting. You will have to imagine the accompanying slides. Is everyone here? Good, let’s get started. If this goes well, maybe we’ll be done a little bit ahead of schedule.
First off, let me list what I liked:
Leeds — Lovely descriptions of Leeds and the surrounding West Yorkshire countryside. I really liked the idea of a Goth festival and anime festival (which apparently are real) and bands of players who do a strolling version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Family Dinner — The awkward family dinner scene that is an excellent example of the type, and quite entertaining.
Alien Invaders —There are some beautiful descriptions of the alien invaders, even if certain behavioral tics seemed familiar. The premise of a culture with values and mores different from ours was good.
Cassie and Pete — Pastor Pete plays a nice role here, and the character of the mysterious Cassie drew me in.
The Laundry List — (sorry, couldn’t resist). We get a list of the rainbow of possible world-ending events. Stross has carefully laid out the system for his transdimensional paranormal adventures in earlier books. Through Alex we finally get to see how our world might end; via the singularity; via an alien invasion; via an awakening of the Elder Gods, and so on. It’s nice to finally have a handy checklist.
Things that didn’t work for me:
The Plot is a Shift from the Other Laundry Books.
The Nightmare Stacks seems to be a gathering-of-the-forces story, a subtype more familiar in military SF and mil-fantasy. It also seems to exist mostly to set up plot elements for future books, specifically to deliver a new group of players, and a potential ally, to the Laundry’s doorstep. Characterization is sacrificed for this objective. For those keeping track, the plot concerns an alien invasion (Case Nightmare Red) although these aliens are not quite what we expect.
It read as too long for the story.
I had to fight the urge to skim most of The Nightmare Stacks. While there are exciting set-pieces, (air battles with dragons, a daring exfiltration), when I remember back, this book seems mostly about descriptions of the alien Host gathering for battle, and descriptions of human military tech. The battle scenes come late in the book and read in a somewhat stilted manner, not what I expect from this series. Most of the “action” is the unobstructed, businesslike slaughter of civilians. An attempt to build up the suspense by showing things being planned somehow undercut the tension instead.
Most LAUNDRY FILES book are sendups of other genres; spy novels, thrillers, superhero stories. For me, the nod — or nudge — to epic fantasy here was not successful.
The character relationships did not convince me.
Much of the book seems to be Alex getting a girlfriend, as he bonds with Cassie. There is no reason for Alex to trust Cassie, but he is smitten. Cassie plans to use Alex for his power, which she is drawn to, and Alex is using Cassie as an ego-prop because he’s never had a girlfriend before. This transmutes into love, or at least mutual infatuation, but that doesn’t happen on the page. I simply didn’t believe it. The fact that the Powers That Be back at the Laundry are counting on this reaction doesn’t make it less implausible and or any less disappointing.
The Main Character is Flat.
Alex is not that interesting. The fact that he is a PHANG* has lost novelty and most potential for conflict at this point. The most interesting thing about him is his counting compulsion, which is actually a symptom of PHANG. A possible complication that Stross sets up — that PHANG can be transmitted through sexual activity — is casually swept away as a problem late in The Nightmare Stacks with a one-sentence solution.
Near the end of the book, Alex begins to behave exactly the way Bob Howard would; he shows a chivalric loyalty, he thinks outside the box, he’s physically brave. That’s all well and good if a bit late, but why must I settle for Bob Howard-lite? Why can’t Alex be his own character, with some different strengths and interesting flaws?
Two new characters show up at Alex’s disastrous family dinner: his sister Sarah and her new partner Mack. Sarah and Mack are both interesting enough and “coincidental” enough (Sarah has just “happened” to change her major to history) for me to hope they show up in future books. It worries me that two characters who appear for one chapter intrigue me more than the main character.
The drawn-out plot and a flattened main character made The Nightmare Stacks fail for me. Any series can hit a slump and Stross is making a course change here. I think the attempt to tell a slightly different kind of story did not succeed. And a new narrator with no characteristics that aren’t provided by a viral infection is not compelling.
Because of developments in Bob Howard’s story, he may not be the best narrator for the series going forward. I understand the need to broaden the canvas. Personally, I’d settle for more Persephone, Johnny McTavish and Pastor Pete, all secondary characters who have life and color. Ultimately, I just don’t want to be in the mind of a vampire ex-banker if the end of the world is coming. I recommend shopping around a bit more.
Thank you all for attending today. Please be sure that you have put the correct training section number, up there on the whiteboard, on your time-cards, or you will have to deal with HR. And nobody wants that.
*PHANG: Photogolic Hemophagic Atypical Neuroectodermal Gangrene. Vampirism.
What a fine review. And it’s so sad, too, because too many of the books that I’ve picked up recently fall under the same category. Really excited about the book itself, anxious to dig in, and yet the foundations of good storytelling – relationships, genre shifts, etc. can fall flat. Especially when you know the author can be better, it’s very disheartening. But, at the same time, we are human. Writers too. I’ve had similar problems showcased in some of my recent reviews on my own blog, of The Bloodletter’s Daughter and The Ludwig Conspiracy, ones I was chomping at the bit to read. Ah well. Try, try again, eh?
Yes, Stross is so good, I’m sure I’ll enjoy future outings in this universe.
I realised too late that this is an old review, but I’ll reply anyway because it’s fascinating how people can have such different views on a topic. When I read this I thought the romance was far and away the highlight of the book, and Alex & Cassie immediately became my favourite couple in the series.
Which isn’t a dig at you at all, I just think it’s interesting. I could devour whole chapters of Alex and Cassie just having silly dates and their characters bouncing off one another, could write essays on all the reasons I love them, was so relieved when even though the next book stuck them in shitty situations it still made it clear they were affectionate and protective and cared about each other.
And then other people get nothing.
Different strokes, I suppose.