Sunday, January 11, 2009

“The Merchant Princes” Books #1, 2 & 3, by Charles Stross (Tor)

Stross-MP-FamilyTrade Stross-MP-HiddenFamily Stross-MP-ClanCorporate

Dimension-hopping corporate tycoons and assassins. Business journalist Miriam Beckstein’s life has just got rather more strange…

The first three installments of Charles Stross’ Saga of the Merchant Princes are a banquet of high-concept sci-fi.

In The Family Trade, we are introduced to Miriam Beckstein. A successful journalist for a tech magazine in Boston, she’s stumbled across a great scoop – international money laundering, goodfella-style goons, the works. Unfortunately, the article plays a little too close to home, and she is fired on the spot. After receiving a mysterious locket that used to belong to her long-dead mother, Miriam is entranced by the knot design on its inside. As she gazes into it, she’s been transported to a different world.

The Hidden Family. There are now three worlds that Miriam must navigate. Our own, the Gruinmarkt (the one her family’s actually from), and now a quasi-Victorian world (with steam cars and airships), home of the previously believed-lost Sixth Family. Miriam, taking up her rightful position as Countess Thorold-Hjorth continues to become increasingly ensnared in the politics and conspiracies of Gruinmarkt, and watches her back for any hostile move by that most dangerous of organisations: her Family. At the same time, she starts her own import-export business in this new world. This novel concludes with an explosive action-packed ending.

The Clan Corporate. A tentative cease-fire exists between the Gruinmarkt world and the third world Miriam discovered in book #2. Now, however, Miriam finds herself coming up against the various expectations of her new station. Confined largely to the Clan's holdings in the Gruinmarkt, Miriam/Helge does not travel as much in this novel as the previous two. Namely, that of marriage, as she is pushed towards the king’s brain-damaged son, or any number of other worthy nobles. All this, and the DEA and FBI have been turned on to the Clan’s activities, roping Miriam’s former husband into the mix, and the noose if closing…

While the first book feels very much like a first installment, rather than a stand-alone novel (there’s far too much exposition), it lays a solid foundation for the books to come. The pace and volume of information perfectly matches what I imagine Miriam is feeling when going through the transition from newly-unemployed journalist to über-wealthy scion of the Clan. She considers the situation strange and Mafia-esque: “what happens to business life when there’s no limit to liability and the only people you can work with are your blood relatives”. The new world she becomes a part of is like a collision between corporate America and a feudal, Medieval Europe. Each novel builds on our understanding of the worlds Stross has created, with the pace and plot twisting and tying together over the course of all three books. Reading these three novels is like reading one rather long one, and I’d recommend people did read these together, to keep the flow going. With each new volume, the series goes from strength to strength, adding more detail and intrigue, roping the reader in more and more into Stross’s worlds.

I took to Miriam far more quickly than I do to most female protagonists. This is mainly down to the fact that, for some reason, female characters are often written in a very formulaic way – they’re either tomboys or their waifs, prone to tears at the drop of a hat (this is especially true in crime and thriller fiction). Miriam, on the other hand, is a strong figure with not a few neuroses. (The fact that she talks to herself might be annoying to some, but I thought it added plenty of welcome humour and cynicism to her character.) Her can-do attitude is appealing but not overwhelming. The other main protagonists are equally appealing – especially Miriam’s hand-maiden Brill and fellow noblewoman Olga (both of whom have interests in court gossip, making a good marriage, banqueting, and high-tech automatic weapons). Despite the premise of the series, there’s a distinct level of realism throughout.

Charles Stross’s writing style is very accessible, and he has a gift for making seemingly every topic engaging – even economics, which plays a large part in this series. The premise for this series had the potential to be pretty boring – parallel worlds and the ability to move from one reality to another is one of the oldest sub-genres in sci-fi (just think of Narnia and the TV show Sliders as two examples). Thankfully, Stross has managed to take this world-hopping theme and make it wholly his own, applying his boundless inventiveness to this series, drawing us in through ever-greater reveals and hints as to the wider picture. Over these three novels, Stross blends brilliantly a number of elements from science fiction, history, and contemporary issues (there’s a rather Cold War-esque frisson to The Clan Corporate, between New England and the French Empire).

With realistic, well drawn characters, plenty of humour, and tight, expansive plotting, The Merchant Princes is easily one of the finest, most involved and inventive science-fiction series on the market. A very highly recommended series from a master storyteller.

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