Alex Schwartz, also known as Alex the Vampire, started working for the Laundry after receiving an offer he couldn’t refuse. His first task is supposed to be routine and his main concern is that it’s in Leeds, his hometown, with the anxiety about meeting his parents and telling them a cover story about what happened to him. The positive note comes from his meeting with Cassie, a local student who seems to find him interesting.
On a parallel Earth a not-exactly human civilization developed upon magical powers is planning to invade what for them is another Earth. The king’s daughter is sent as a spy to gather information on the civilization of humans to assess their power and facilitate the invasion. To infiltrate humans, she takes the form of Cassie, a student from the place she arrives after crossing the bridge between the universes.
The Laundry series began as an alleged reproduction of the journals that Bob Howard started writing after he joined the Laundry. As the novels progressed, the narrative was expanded by Charles Stross, telling parts with other protagonists of the various novels to the point of writing “The Annihilation Score” from the perspective of Mo O’Brien, Bob Howard’s wife. In “The Nightmare Stacks” the author changes again point of view, which becomes Alex Schwartz’s, a character who appeared in “The Rhesus Chart”.
The Laundry employs people who in one way or another have come across magic – in Alex’s case in a rather traumatic way since he turned into a vampire – leaving them little choice since the alternative is death. In some ways the beginning of “The Nightmare Stacks” reminds of the series start as Alex, like Bob Howard was at the time, is still inexperienced and worried about what can happen to him in his new job. However, the two characters are very different and not just because Alex has become a vampire since Bob is a computer scientist while Alex is a mathematician. The beginnings of both characters are a bit heavy for similar reasons but in Bob’s case there were several very funny geek references to make up for it in part while in Alex’s case all that is missing with the consequence that I found the initial part really heavy.
“The Nightmare Stacks” requires a certain patience that isn’t obvious to fans of the Laundry series, who are now well accustomed to stories flowing from the beginning with well-known protagonists. It almost seems that Charles Stross is trying to leave out the most geeky bits to make the novels of the series more easily accessible to the readers who don’t have good computer skills. This novel is almost a spinoff, perhaps to try to attract new readers too. Having read “The Rhesus Chart” is however recommended not only to get to know Alex and the Laundry but also the author’s interpretation of vampirism.
So far the Laundry novels have been bringing the story towards CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the code name for the return of the Great Old Ones. In “The Nightmare Stacks”, however, the emergency is of the CASE NIGHTMARE RED type, an alien invasion that originates in a parallel universe in which evolution took a slightly different path leading to the domination of a species similar to Homo sapiens but with an appearance of elves and above all much more gifted in magic.
The civilization born on that parallel Earth is based on magic in ways that are explained in the course of the novel with parts told from the point of view of the agent sent as a spy, who discovers a strange and very different world from her own in which magic doesn’t seem present, at least until she meets Alex. The differences between the two Earths and between the two species are an important part of the novel.
The beginning of “The Nightmare Stacks” is an obstacle and it takes a little patience for the reader to get to the heart of the story and enjoy the brilliance that Charles Stross showed once again. Even Alex’s family history, which may initially seem the most boring part of the novel given that the Schwartz family seems dull, is useful to develop the most satirical element, which culminates in a dinner full of surprises. Alex’s parents have certain expectations about their children and some surprises lead to a truly abrasive tale of the evening.
The main part of “The Nightmare Stacks” is about the operations that are supposed to lead to the invasion from the parallel Earth with action and twists up to the last page. Charles Stross found new ways to make fun of a certain bureaucracy that emerges in the countermeasures to CASE NIGHTMARE RED. There are no hilarious geek moments with Bob Howard but there’s the tale of what can happen when a weapon in theory based on artificial intelligence is used.
Despite the difficulties in reading its initial part, overall “The Nightmare Stacks” seemed to me a good novel. Maybe I wouldn’t be happy to have Alex Schwartz as the protagonist overall but he was at the center of a plot that introduced interesting new features in the series with consequences that Charles Stross will develop.