When I first read The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross (of which the first trilogy is currently published) several years ago they were advertised as fantasy rather than as a science fiction/techno thriller and were published as six books. I’d been getting them out of the library then but stalled out on the third or fourth of the books as the library didn’t have the next one. So when I realised the books had been revised and re-released as 3 books it seemed the perfect time to pick them up and finally find out what happened. These three are The Bloodline Feud, The Traders’ War and The Revolution Trade
The story opens with Miriam Beckstein getting herself fired from her job as a biotech journalist by being just a little bit too good at following where the dodgy looking funding deals are coming from. Turns out that if your employer’s owner is involved he might not be so keen on having you break the story … When she visits her adoptive mother for sympathy she brings home a box of heirlooms/trinkets, one of which is a locket with an intricate design on it. Examining it more closely she ends up somewhere else, with a splitting headache. And nothing will ever be the same again … for her, or either (any!) of the worlds. It turns out that Miriam is, in fact, a princess of sorts – her family in the other world might be nouveau riche but as they and they alone have the ability to walk between the worlds they have political power and wealth that the better bred aristocracy of that world can only dream about.
When Miriam first stumbles into her heritage the Family make their money and generate their power in fairly simple ways. Their own world is technologically less advanced than ours so communication and transport across the landmass of the Americas is very slow, and they make their money by transporting goods and information very quickly via our world. In our world they make their money by transporting drugs very slowly but utterly securely in their own world (as well as growing their own heroin to sell). A pretty medieval way of doing business, and to Miriam’s mind it’s about time it was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. She’s hampered in that goal by many of the other medieval aspects of this new world … the status of women, for instance, and the Machiavellian political situation. And it turns out that these are not the only worlds, and they are not quite the only people who can walk between them.
They’re pretty hard books to give a summary of even the jumping off point – I’ve written those two paragraphs and feel like I’ve barely touched on the elements that are in the books. It starts out as a fairly straightforward portal fantasy/wish fulfilment fantasy trope: adopted girl finds out that she’s a princess in another world. And then Stross takes a good look at the ramifications of that. What would it really be like as a 30-something 21st Century American woman to suddenly become a medieval/early modern noblewoman? Answer: It would suck. And not just in the obvious ways, Miriam also doesn’t have the cultural toolkit necessary to navigate such a hierarchical world where honour and losing face matter – it’s not like she was particularly good at it even in her own world, just look at how she gets herself fired.
And it’s not just the ramifications of that fantasy. For instance: once deciding to do business by transporting drugs (such an obvious step), the Family are then embroiled in the rest of the drug trade in the US … and the law enforcement agencies, the government etc etc. As the series progresses the ways in which the two worlds’ political, military and security establishments are tangled together get more clear, and the consequences of the events set in motion by Miriam get ever more severe.
Culture shock and the misunderstandings when one culture meets another are a theme across the series. This is most obvious in Miriam’s reaction to the new world she finds herself in. But it also comes across in how the politics between the worlds plays out – assumptions made about how “of course they won’t do X so we can do Y” don’t always turn out the way the people involved expect. And it’s present through all the small stuff too – Miriam constantly mis-steps because her cultural values aren’t the same as her new family’s and vice versa.
The science fiction aspect of them takes a while to show up, but one of the big things is that the “stare at this pattern and travel” ability isn’t magic. And one of the threads of this trilogy that I most want to see where it’s going in the next books is the exploration of both the worlds they can get to and where the ability comes from.
I could do with re-reading these, even fairly soon – to see how knowing the big reveals ahead of time changes what I think of the earlier sections. Also because I’m not sure I followed all the twists & turns of the Machiavellian politics and that might be easier the second time round.
Definitely a series worth reading 🙂