Charles Stross’ Dead Lies Dreaming is the tenth novel set in his Laundryverse and the first novel in the New Management sequence.
The United Kingdom flourishes under the enlightened rule of the New Management. No longer need the inhabitants of the island nation fear that transgressors will be insufficiently punished. If there’s one thing the Black Pharaoh believes in, it’s draconian consequences. Thus, the return of the Bloody Code; thus inspirational public executions.
The UK’s new normal does make for a stressful work environment for career criminals like Imp and his Lost Boys. Imp and his associates — Game Boy, Doc, Del — do have one small advantage over their criminal competition: superpowers.
Regrettably, the Lost Boys do not number among their number anyone who is invulnerable. Thus, their zany crimes take the form of confidence games, using their primarily mental tricks — Game Boy’s probability manipulation aside — to convince their befuddled victims into handing over the goods the Lost Boys covet. It’s all good fun.
The New Management’s police forces take a humourless view of crime, so it is for the best that among the policies retained from their predecessors has been that of underfunding and privatizing the police. The Lost Boys have been unsubtle enough that they have a hunter on their trail. However, they are lucky that Wendy Deere is a privately-paid Thief Taker, with a limited budget and even more limited remit. But she also has superpowers and her ability to create simple objects out of sheer will can be quite damaging.
Prudent criminals would retire. Imp and gang plan One Last Job, a daring scheme that cannot possibly go wrong, one that is sure to earn them sufficient retirement money. The plan: Imp’s sister Evelyn Starkey will hire them to grab a magical tome for her malevolent oligarch boss, Rupert de Montfort Bigge.
It should be a perfectly straightforward job. Thanks to bad timing, information maliciously withheld, and an alarmingly large number of armed bastards on the track of the tome, it isn’t.
While the United Kingdom ruled by what appears to be Nyarlathotep might be deemed in many senses undesirable, what with mortals crushed under the weight of an inhuman, inhumane government seeking power at any cost, a government delighting in human misery, it is still probably better than the current Tory government or the rapidly looming consequences of Brexit. The Elder Gods may have regrettable goals but they are, whatever their flaws, generally competent at achieving those goals.
In addition to being a cosmic horror novel, this is a caper novel of the sort that pits a generally likable crew of lovable miscreants against an unlovable State and an even less lovable assortment of legitimately awful black hats who do not share our protagonists’ reluctance for lethal violence. The Lost Boys may be careful to avoid costing bystanders more than a bit of embarrassment, but their rivals will quite cheerfully murder anyone who gets in their way.
On the plus side, Imp is nowhere near as evil a bastard as his inspiration, Peter Pan. None of Imp’s associates need worry Imp will “thin the Lost Boys out,” as Pan did. This is because Imp is not a homicidal little sociopath and he is loyal to his friends. Additionally, Stross fills the ranks of the Lost Boys with characters who are sufficiently endearing to inspire loyalty.
The downside, of course, is that caper novels in general are not zero-risk even when they do not, as this example does, take place in a cosmic horror universe in which horrible death is only one of the many benefits offered by the New Management. Having staffed the book with characters whose deaths one would regret, Stross then provides the reader with an entire novel in which characters the reader will care about may or may not survive.
Who lives? Do any of them live? And what’s so important about the book Bigge covets? Those would be spoilers.