Fast Forward Book Review for October 2005
The Merchant Princes
Book 1: The Family Trade
New York : Tor, 2004
Book 2: The Hidden Family
New York : Tor, 2005
by Colleen R. Cahill
Unless you are an economics major, the word mercantilism is likely to put you to sleep. A dusty old trade method is usually not the stuff of exciting fiction. In the right hands, however, this can be a great plot device and in the case of the two books from Charles Stross#39;s The Merchant Princes series, it is a seat-of-your-pants wild ride.
The story begins with The Family Trade and centers on Miriam Beckstein, a 33 year old divorced technology journalist in Boston who, with her researcher Paulette Milan, are ready to break open a story on corporate corruption that could reach the highest levels. Ready, until they report to their boss and suddenly they are out on the street and looking over their shoulders for hit men. If this is not enough excitement, Miriam is given a locket by her adopted mother that was found on the body of her murdered mother, an interesting piece that has some strange properties that can propel her into another world. This medieval land has all the serfs, dirt, nobility and glamour one expects, but it also has knights with rifles, lords in business suits and a criminal clan of six families that rival the mob for ruthlessness. Her blood family are world walkers: people with a genetic ability to move between the our reality and another world, one that is geographically familiar but very different socially and politically. Kind of like a story-book princess, Miriam turns out to be a long-lost family member and becomes an instant countess, one with riches and perhaps some power.
Not being a dewy-eyed teenager, Miriam quickly realizes she does not want to be another woman married off to strengthen family alliances nor does she relish the idea of being a baby factory for the Clan. Not all her kin are happy to see this prodigal daughter, as her appearance upsets the power structure within the Clan, forcing some into lower positions. The local King would also like to use Miriam to control the Clan and its money, even if he is unaware of its source. Between court politics, culture shock, and family intrigues, Miriam walks a fine line, one that she hopes will keep her independent and free. All this is complicated by assassination attempts, some from mysterious world walkers who are not Clan members. With the help of her foster mother, Paulette, and some newly found cousins, Miriam begins to establish her own power base, one she hopes will change the Clan by moving away from drug trade and introducing modern business practices. And all the while, she still tries to keep her journalism career going back home.
This series is a wonderful mixture of alternate history, meeting of worlds, thriller, romance, and science fiction. It is also a great read, with lots of action, believable characters, and interesting discussions on corruption, economics, and class structure. Stross does not romanticize any of his worlds, but shows the blunt truths of each, both negative and positive.
You must read the volumes in order and there is another book to come, but start The Merchant Princes today: it is just too good to wait.