Map of Blue Book Balloon

28 October 2020

Review - Dead Lies Dreaming by Charles Stross

Dead Lies Dreaming (A Novel of the Laundry Files)
Charles Stross
Orbit, 29 October 2020
Available as: HB, 384pp, audio, e
Source: advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9780356513799

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Dead Lies Dreaming via NetGalley.

After a couple of years' hiatus it's great to see a novel by Charles Stross hitting the streets again - in this case the streets of up-market Kensington in London, home to hedge funds, shady oligarchs' property investments and minor royalty...

...And also to a gang of anarchic robbers with minor superpowers who are staging audacious daylight robberies in order to raise funds for their avant-garde film based on J M Barrie's Peter Pan (in which 'Peter was nothing is not pansexual' - we're not in Disneyland any more).

The book is set is the world of the Laundry Files, Stross's long running series about the occult division of the British Secret Service and its confrontation with nameless, tentacled horrors from beyond the walls of our universe. It's not, though, a "Laundry Files" novel - you won't find Bob Howard here and while the Laundry itself is alluded to a couple of times, it doesn't feature in the events. 

Rather we have the same background, of impending apocalypse, staved off only by the New Management, the ancient horror that has assumed power in Downing Street and which displays the heads of speeding motorists along the M25 - but everything seen much more from an outsider's perspective. The cruelties of the regime are that much starker, when distanced from the high politics that brought them about: 'Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop... When the alfär executioner held his heavy-duty electric screwdriver against Santa's wrist, the screams were audible over the tumble of passing buses.'

Yes, the New Management is all for Law and Order, which makes Imp and his gang's activities distinctly perilous.

Like many of the earlier Laundry novels, this story has a (loose) inspiration in an earlier book, in this case, yes, you won't be surprised it's JM Barrie's novel about Peter and Wendy. (Appropriate, given the associations between Peter and Kensington). So the gang - Imp, Doc, Del, Game Boy - are referred to as the 'Lost Boys' (though strictly one's a girl), we find a dangerous Neverland buried deep behind one of those respectable mansions, there is a Wendy (a character who's perhaps a bit under-used: I hope we'll meet her again) and there are clear thematic links - though as I said above, these aren't to the sanitised, Disneyesque version. The Lost Boys are hunted by the law, hiding out in a den where they enthusiastically share drugs, and once their enemies catch up with them, we're not talking fancy swordplay and taunts - the book features serious weaponry, a massive death toll and some very, very nasty villains.

Oh, and a background of child sacrifice, torture and gangsters.

I did feel that the Boys' separate personas took a little time to become clear. In part I think that's because they're introduce in the middle of a caper, deploying their superpowers right and left in fast moving action. In part it's because there are layers to them and aspects of their identities that aren't, even shouldn't be, obvious - just bear with things a bit here, OK?

Chief among the Boys' opponents are billionaire businessman Rupert Bigge (head of the Big Organisation) and his henchwoman Evelyn Starkey - an ultraefficient PA/ assassin ('work was a game she played in boss mode') who spends her free minutes planning new ways to torture those who have crossed Rupert, and to dispose of their remains. (When she's not doing that, the real boss is prone to call her from wherever and demand phone sex). There are also Russian mafia assassins, a James Bond-for-hire and an ancestral curse.

The book features Stross's characteristic hectic multiple plots and hidden motivations (though here, perhaps a bit more linear than in previous books) and occult-technothriller atmosphere. But it also has a genuinely sad family history in the mix, featuring a lost sibling (there we go again with the Peter Pan stuff!), a broken family and aforementioned curse. I don't want to spoil the story but I found that one of the characters who I strongly disliked at first turned out to be very sympathetic and - by the end - perhaps even redeemed. (Perhaps. We'll see, if they recur in a later book). It also has - again , that outsider's view - a grim appreciation of the realities of poverty in 2020s London. I know that in Laundry books, Bob has grumbled about Civil Service wages, but he had a reasonable house provided. Here we find Wendy, for example, very hard up, having to juggle between eating and having the heating on ('Poverty was expensive') and encounter the outskirts of the UK's failing adult care system with a frank appraisal of a home ('Eve did not - could not - believe in a loving God because she visited Hell every second Sunday of the month to take tea with the damned'), and magic-addled victims of K-syndrome wandering the streets. (Yes, Mr Stross, I want to know more about Professor Skullface as well!) 

In reading Dead Lies Dreaming I think I benefited from having first read the Laundry Files proper. I knew the world and the setup, and the full significance of certain things that are explained here but only briefly (as well, of course, as knowing where the arc of this world is bending...) Perhaps a reader coming to this world fresh wouldn't feel they were missing out on anything but they might wonder about the emphasis on one or two things.

In short, I enjoyed this book. There is some sharp writing here, quite a few places where I giggled out loud, well imagined characters (though, as I've said, some could have had more exposure) and a pacy plot. It was also good to be back in the horrific, grotesque world of the Laundry with its barely contained paranoia, its horror ruling from Downing Street, its sense of impending doom and of a dissolving society (heightened here by rampaging gangster capitalism). The slightly cooler, street-level view of that world gives a more rounded picture, perhaps than the shenanigans of Bob & Co and reveals it to be a world curiously unlike our own (see for example Imp's frustration at Del's 'perpetually seething low-key state of rage [which] was a potential lethal weakness'). 

Stross is back with a book that shows how this saga, begun in The Atrocity Archives some fifteen years ago, continues to evolve, becoming, if anything, more and more relevant.

For more information about Dead Lies Dreaming, see the publisher's website here or Stross's blog here.