Sunday 6 December 2020

Even Charles Stross' worst book is pretty good

If we select nominations for Best Series based on a representative title being released in 2020, The

Laundry Files may not make the grade. But if we are choosing nominations based on the strength of the entire series, then Charles Stross’s decades-long Laundry Files series is nearly a lock for our ballots.

This is not to say that Dead Lies Dreaming is a let-down. Rather, it’s an uneven book that doesn’t always showcase the strengths of the series, or Stross’ rich imagination.

Taking place in a London transformed by the rise of the dark and eldritch forces unleashed during the events of the previous few Laundry Files novels, Dead Lies Dreaming follows the exploits of a group of marginalized youths who support themselves through magic-based crime. Through various circumstances — and family connections — they become embroiled in a plot to travel back in time and secure a rare and dangerous tome of magic.

As always with Stross, there’s a fair degree of on-point criticism of capitalism’s excesses, much of which lands well. The sections in which he uses the point of view of the marginalized youths to examine the completely bizarre housing market in the United Kingdom, are perspicacious, witty, and sad.

One of the strongest scenes — and perhaps the most difficult to read because it hits so close to home — involves a visit to a long-term care facility. Stross writes the section with a keen eye for the real-world horrors of old age, dementia, and under-resourced nursing staff.
Those who have spent time at privatized seniors
care facilities will find Stross' insightful writing
about such places to be harrowing.
(Image via Chilliwack Progress

Where Dead Lies Dreaming falls down as a book is that it’s hard to get a handle on any of the characters as people. Several of them seem interesting at first — particularly police officer / thief taker Wendy Deere, and corporate power-broker Eve. Stross has introduced a large and diverse cast, but doesn’t develop many of them beyond sketch work.

Stross has made a clean break here from all the previous books in the series. The story barely even mentions any of the existing characters, does not tie into the overall story arc, and doesn’t even touch on the spycraft that had been the unifying theme for the series. This makes one wonder whether this book might have been better-served by being pared down, streamlined, and released as something wholly separate.

It has been almost a decade since Charles Stross penned a novel that was not a sequel to one of his previous books. Dead Lies Dreaming is still a sequel, but in some ways it is a welcome change in that it stands alone far more than most of his recent novels. Some might even find it a better entry point to the world of the Laundry Files than several of the previous books. But is this a world that is worth devoting many more books to? Only Stross can pull that off, and we think he could, but is he ready to move on? Dead Lies Dreaming leaves us hoping he might be.

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