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Charles Stross: The Nightmare Stacks (2017, ORBIT) 4 stars

"The Laundry Files' 'fast-paced blend of espionage thrills, mundane office comedy and Lovecraftian horror' (SFX) …

Review of 'The Nightmare Stacks' on 'Goodreads'

4 stars

The Laundry is a secret British intelligence agency dealing with the occult. But the occult of The Laundry Files series is special. To quote book three, The Fuller Memorandum, "...Our magic is computational. The realm of pure mathematics is very real indeed, and the things that cast shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave can sometimes be made to listen and pay attention if you point a loaded theorem at them. This is, however, a very dangerous process, because most of the shadow-casters are unclear on the distinction between pay attention and free buffet lunch here."

Alex, the protagonist of The Nightmare Stacks, found himself supernaturally afflicted in an earlier installment of the series by writing (and understanding) an advanced banking algorithm. The "v-parasites" from beyond that came to inhabit his brain turned him into what would be responsible for inspiring the vampires of myth long ago. Sunlight burns him, he can call on incredible strength and healing reserves, and yes, he needs to consume human blood from time to time. But the blood serves only as a link between his v-parasites and the living host the blood was taken from. They feed off the host's mind instead of his, allowing him to be a functioning member of society and not a slavering beast. In return for his service, The Laundry provides Alex with regular vials from coma patients to keep him sane and useful.

In absence of series regular Bob Howard (and more recent protagonist Moe O'Brien), Alex is the star of this show. He deals with the series' signature bureaucracy, struggles to blend his life as a loveless 20-something with his secret-agent-with-an-aversion-to-sunlight experiences, and eventually stumbles upon an alien invasion of England.

Much as the author has tackled converting other mythologies to this word of computational demonology (such as mermaids, unicorns and vampires), the aliens coming to town are elves. And as usual, Stross does an excellent job world-building a reality where their existence and actions actually make sense. A point of view character, First of Spies, who arrives in the book not too far in, is of the Elven ranks, and she makes a great addition.

While some of the later descriptions of military readiness and deployment in response to a strange, alien threat may be dry for many, it works as part of the feasible world Stross creates. He's not just throwing things at the page and seeing if they stick; he's thought this all through.

My only complaint is that the end was so abrupt. I would have liked to spend some time with the personal and societal aftermath of the book's events. It wouldn't surprise me if they're touched on in a sequel, but for now I'm left imagining what came the morning (and months) after.