Friday, October 2, 2020

Microreview [book]: Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross

Charles Stross’ Dead Lies Dreaming introduces us to new characters and a new look at his Laundry Files universe--showing us how supervillains, corporate types and others are living under the New Management.

How do you hook new readers into a long running series? And how do you keep things fresh for readers of that series, so you aren’t repeating yourself. And, if it is set in a version of our modern world, how do you continue what is by now an alternate history and make sense of things, and yet not seem completely divorced from where our world is, even if our world does not have magicians, supervillains, and Cosmic Horror entities. And how do you keep it fresh for yourself as a writer?

All of these issues come to the fore in Charles Stross’ Laundry Files universe. In his universe, Cosmic Entities do exist, higher maths can open up portals and contacts with them, and the world, by the increasing population and technology have been moving toward a Cosmic Horror singularity for quite some time. The Laundry Files main line of novels has followed a few characters, particularly Bob Howard, as events, and his own power, have progressed. Even within that line, Stross has introduced new POV characters, and new tweaks to the timeline (including a Fae invasion and vampires ) to provide new chances at entry points with new characters and places to catch up.

Now, with Dead Lies Dreaming, Stross goes further afield still, with a novel that breaks free of the Laundry espionage agency entirely, and providing us with a new set of characters trying to make their way in a Britain where the Black Pharaoh has been installed as the ruler (trust me, the alternatives were WORSE). We get to see a new view on Brtain from the perspective from other than the Laundry--from the perspective of people on the street, or at least not within the walls of a quasi spy agency. Not that our protagonists are ordinary, but they are much closer to average people than our previous characters. 

The center of our narrative are Imp (aka Jerm aka Jeremy Starkey) and his sister Evelyn. Imp wants to make movies, in particular an adaptation of Peter Pan, and he and his cadre act as supervillains to raise funds for that cause. Evelyn works for Rupert, a billionaire magnate with more fingers in pies than the normal person has fingers, and definitely has interest in the occult. In the time of the New Management, it is just prudent for a captain of money and finance to have diversified interests. Rupert directs Evelyn to obtain a Very Important Book by any means, and Evelyn sees a chance to hire her brother to aid in it. For, you see, the Book has more than a small tie to the two of them, and their family history. Does Rupert know that? Perhaps he does, but that just starts a blitz chess match across multiple boards to find the MacGuffin. It’s the Maltese Falcon with heavy doses of supervillains, ritual magic, set in the New Management modern Britain. And does Evelyn have powers or know magic? Well, she IS an accountant...

After the first few novels, which mainly kept Howard as a POV, Stross has really grown his gift of using points of view to illuminate and illustrate his story. The tight focus is a bit diluted by breaking out of the POV of x and y, but it also helps show the breadth and variety of the world. With the complexity of the plot, a jewel gear mechanism that in the end comes together spectacularly, the multiple points of view  help keep the reader appraised of all the moving pieces. On a ground level, few of the characters really are aware of how complicated events are in manipulating them and what they do, but we as a reader can watch the struggle for the MacGuffin unfold.  I particularly liked the point of vew from “The Bond” , another agent of Rupert’s that definitely is modeled on the Fleming character¹. .Focused to the point of inhumanity, he is the ticking clock that, once unleashed, propels the narrative and like any good heist story (and this is most definitely a Heist story, several heists in fact,  including at least one hidden one) , keeps the ticking clock of events rolling. It’s a classic and effective  template--set up the characters with slice of life incidents, put together the center heist story and let the characters and plot run.

There is a heck of a lot of worldbuilding needed for the novel, showing old readers how things have moved along while at at the same time providing new readers enough grounding to get a sense of just what life under the New Management is like. This starts in the very first sentence of the novel, which describes Imp witnessing a Santa being crucified by Elven warriors. This helps reassure previous readers of events of the series, and for new readers, makes it clear right away that this is not the Britain they know and love. The next few sentences and paragraph bolster that first sentence and show that this is what life under the New Management is like, and hooks the reader into the changed world from the get go. We get established how the Supervillain team led by Imp can and does do their thing in that first chapter, and we are off and running. I do think that Stross succeeds here as a new entry point for the series, you don’t have to go all the way back to the Atrocity Archive to get a sense of what life is like, now. For previous readers of the series, who have seen the superhero/villain novels and also the use of magic in other Laundry Files novels, this novel allows Stross to put both of them into the same conflicts, to see just how the various parts of his Singularity we have seen separately before play together.

In short, Dead Lies Dreaming is a very successful branch off of the Laundry Files universe into new characters and perspective, and giving us an update on just what life is like under the New Management. Combine both of those with an excellent heist plot and some very clever plotting and worldbuilding, and this latest in the Laundry Files verse was a treat to read. I fully intend to get the audio of this book upon release, for I find the audio experience of these books to be as rich as reading them. A re-read of this book via audio when long driving trips are practical again sounds like a winning idea to me. And perhaps to you.

¹ Longtime readers of the Laundry Files will note that this is not the first time Stross has engaged in Bond or spy tropes. The Bond doesn’t quite match up with those previous books, this is a new use of the character and archetype.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a very successful switch to a new thread in the Laundry Files verse
+1 for excellent heist plotting.

Penalties: -1 A Britain under the New Management may not be the comfort read for 2020 you are looking for.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 well worth your time and attention

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know?@princejvstin.

Reference: Stross, Charles. Dead Lies Dreaming [Tor, 2020]