The Merchant Princes Trilogy, Charles Stross

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 🙂

“Delusion in Death” J. D. Robb

J. D. Robb is a pen name for Nora Roberts who writes mostly romance & romance/crossover novels under her real name. Robb writes futuristic crime/thrillers, and her protagonist is Eve Dallas, a police lieutenant in a future NYPD homicide division. There are loads of these books, all called Something In Death, this one (Delusion in Death) is last autumn’s one (there appear to be two per year). In it Dallas must figure out what could make a bar full of perfectly normal business people suddenly slaughter each other – leaving 80 dead and nearly no witnesses. What could’ve caused this, who did it & why? And can Dallas stop the perpetrator from doing it again?

These books are guilty pleasure books for me, candy floss for the brain – ok in small doses but you wouldn’t want too much. There’s definitely a formula for these, a pattern to the shape of the story that holds true across the whole series. And I have the distinct feeling that the choice of a futuristic setting is to remove the need to have the murder methods be plausible with today’s tech or have the police follow acceptable to now standards. She’s even written in a collapse of society & rebuild in between now & then so extrapolation from here to there doesn’t need to be obvious. (Although having said that, the world she’s invented for them does hang together pretty well it’s not just a get out of jail free card she’s put some thought into it.) It doesn’t stop them being fun reads, and a series that I will pick up the next instalment of as soon as I see it in the library (and mostly finish reading while standing in the library) but I won’t bother reserving them.

Robb/Roberts’s strength is creating characters and making them feel real, and distinct. Obviously in this series Eve Dallas and the other recurring characters get fleshed out gradually over the course of several books, but even the one-offs for this book feel like individuals. Even the antagonist – who’s a pathetic weasel of a person, not a meglomaniac or caricature.

I don’t know if I’ve really got anything else to say about this book – fun but possibly not worth looking too closely at the plot in case I see holes.

“Blackbirds” Chuck Wendig

Miriam Black can tell when you’re going to die. She’d actually rather not know, but it only takes a bit of skin on skin contact and she knows when, of what and maybe a bit of where. A nicely packaged vision that only takes a couple of seconds real time but lasts for as long as it needs to to show her the details.

The book opens with Miriam waiting for an unpleasant specimen of a man to die in a motel room so she can rifle through his wallet and take enough money to get a few more dinners & a few more motel rooms. This is how she lives, hitch-hiking around the US, surviving rather than living. She’s got a foul mouth and an attitude and underneath the bluster she’s broken but she’ll be damned if she lets anyone else see. The story is told both moving forward from the opening scene and through a series of flashbacks & dreams & other people’s stories. Miriam meets a trucker (who she actually likes, not a common occurrence) who’ll die in a particularly gruesome murder with her name on his lips – the climax of the thriller plot line. And a con man who has a proposition for her, and who isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The flashbacks & dreams tell us how Miriam got here, why she’s broken & on the road and give hints as to how her power works & where it came from (as far as she knows).

One thing I liked about this book is the gender flipping of a couple of clichés. Most obvious is Louis the trucker as the damsel in distress and murder victim, with Miriam trying to figure out if she can stop it happening. Louis is also the catalyst for Miriam to become more actively engaged with her life again rather just drifting along waiting for death – in a “redeemed by the love of a good woman” sort of way (Louis is the “good woman” here, in case I’m not clear). Also notable, Miriam’s got a troubled past (well, duh) but Wendig avoids the cliché of rape. The bad shit that did happen to her feels appropriate for what it’s done to her, and thematically appropriate for the story rather than “woman with trauma, must’ve been rape”.

While the story is satisfyingly complete in itself there’s a sequel and there’s definitely hooks for a wider story. Miriam figures out more of the rules of her powers by the climax of the story. There’s also a (gruesome) scene where she talks to a psychic to try & learn more about her power – she doesn’t get answers but it’s clear that there’s something there to learn. Which kinda sums up that side of it for the reader too – we don’t know any more than Miriam, but it’s clear that Wendig knows where he’s going with this.

I liked this book a lot. It’s pretty dark, but with a current of optimism running through it. I thought Miriam’s cynicism was clearly presented as part of how she’s broken rather than the truth of the world. And the ending holds out hope that she might be able to make her own world better. It’s a fairly gruesome book tho – I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily disturbed by written descriptions. I’m squeamish myself, but when reading I’ve perfected the art of Not Visualising things so books (including this one) are generally OK. But there’s stuff in this that I’d not want to see in a film.