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The Hidden Family (The Merchant Princes book 2) by Charles Stross

01/10/2005. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: TOR. 303 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $34.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-765-31347-2.

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While it is understandable that all publishers want to make a profit from the books they produce. A target that becomes more and more difficult with the number of books printed every year. The quality of the writers producing them and the propensity, particularly in America, for bookshops to clear their shelves of unsold books at the end of each month. It is no wonder that they like shorter books that can appear as a series. Unfortunately, this can cramp the style of a writer or frustrate the reader. Charles Stross has learnt about the whims of publishers the hard way and the results are not all to his benefit. In many ways, he is this year's 'hot property' having been nominated for a Hugo in the novel category for 'Iron Sunrise' and twice in the novella category. He won the Hugo for the novella.

Stross is quite happy to talk about the problems he has had and to suggest guidelines for those who would follow in his footsteps.

Rule One: If you want to be published in America, do not make your novel more than 350 pages. 'The Merchant Princes' sequence, of which 'The Hidden Family' is volume two, began life as one volume which the publisher decided was too unwieldy.

Rule Two: If you have written a long book, make sure that it can be divided easily into two volumes. 'The Family Trade', the first part of the series probably does have a distinct life of its own, Stross believes so, and there are elements in 'The Hidden Family' which appear to be newly introduced.

Rule Three: Even if you are contracted to write a series of books, make sure that each volume is rounded off and not left hanging. Stross has changed publishers for various reasons and later volumes have not been carried over to the new outfit. In 'The Hidden Family', the ending does reach a conclusion and although readers may like to follow the characters further they is no absolute imperative.

Rule Four: Leave just enough unfinished to persuade the reader to buy the next in the series. Many will certainly find this is true about 'The Merchant Princes'.

Rule Five: if you have to use plot clichés, turn them on their heads. This he has tried, relatively successfully, to do.

There's a large number of fantasy novels in which the main protagonist has been brought up in an obscure family but with the feeling that they don't fit there. Then one day, they discover that they are a foundling and are really the long lost heir to a dynasty. Miriam was brought up in our twentieth century with all the technology we have grown used to. In 'The Family Trade', Miriam discovered that she actually belonged to a merchant family that had its base in a parallel world. That world still had the trappings of medievalism, with draughty castles, strict codes of behaviour including arranged marriages for women and swords as the weapon of choice. Family members are able to travel between worlds but they only trade goods they can take are what can actually be carried. Because of the problems of transportation, the family makes its wealth from drug trafficking. Miriam did not want anything to do with this trade. In fact, she wants nothing to do with the family and she especially does not want to live in a cold, damp castle.

After being attacked at the end of the first volume, Miriam discovers that there is a third parallel world in which there is a lost branch of the family. Rather than fall into other people's plans, she decides to set up her own trade in this third world. This one has a technology between the other two, having reached the beginnings of industrial innovation equivalent to early twentieth century. Her plan is to use technology to develop a manufacturing empire by introducing new inventions, while finding ways to bring her wealth back to the comfort of the contemporary world.

This is an action-packed, fast-paced novel which probably tries to do too much within the space allowed. The family runs on politics but this aspect is shallowly touched upon. There is intrigue but without the richness that authors such as George R.R. Martin or Robin Hobb manage to convey. The parallel Boston is well-drawn but it seems too easy for Miriam to set up her companies in a place whose mores she is unaware of. She manages to fit in a bit too easily even for an intelligent woman. The plot lacks depth but this could be a fault of the length, trying to crowd too much into three hundred pages. This also left little room to develop the characters as personalities. Part of the problem here may be the result of splitting the volume into two parts. It is possible that the development of characters took place in volume one.

To answer the question: Does this book stand on its own? Unfortunately, it does not. Too much of the back story is assumed and the reader is left to flounder when characters appear that we obviously should have had some knowledge of before. It is only that I heard Stross talking about this book that I could make enough sense of it to appreciate what he is trying to do. The problems are not his fault but that of the system.

Pauline Morgan

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