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The Family Trade by Charles Stross

01/06/2011. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

Buy The Merchant Princes 1: The Family Trade in the USA - or Buy The Merchant Princes 1: The Family Trade in the UK

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The Merchant Princes 1: The Family Trade by Charles Stross. pub: TOR. 320 pages paperback. Price: GBP 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-033045-193-2).

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Charles Stross is very much a polymath when it comes to genres and styles. His novels stretch their attentions across most of the sub-genres of fantasy and Science Fiction, with hard Science Fiction like ‘Accelerando’ and ‘Saturn’s Children’, space opera like ‘Singularity Sky’, humorous near-future internet thrillers like ‘Halting State’ and the Lovecraft-James Bond mash-up ‘Laundry’ series. In addition to this gamut of choice, he has a more fantasy-based series, ‘The Merchant Princes’ series, which now stretches to six books, the first three of which won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2007.

In the first book of the series, ‘The Family Trade’, Boston tech journalist Miriam Beckstein gets fired for investigating too deeply into a series of insider trading that may include her employers. As she recovers from this setback, she is given a shoebox by her adoptive mother containing items belonging to Miriam’s birth mother, who was brutally murdered shortly after Miriam was born.

Among the shoebox’s contents is a locket with a Celtic knot design. When Miriam stares into the knot, she finds herself transported into a parallel world with a different timeline to ours. In typical Charlie Stross exuberance, the parallel world is back in the dark ages, but some of the men on horses that try to kill Miriam are bearing machine guns.

Once her travel to this new world is discovered by the inhabitants, Miriam is captured and taken to a impressive castle. She is told that her mother is one of the heirs to one of the families of the Clan, a group of families in this other world who possess the ability to travel between our world and theirs. Many writers would use this starting point to tell a traditional heroic fantasy plot, but Stross takes things in a welcome and fascinating new direction looking at the economic and political ramifications of such abilities.

As only a bare handful of people can travel between the worlds, the families of the Clan have set up a smuggling business, where they bring expensive items across from our world to theirs to set themselves up as a dynasty. They also bring more illicit items across to the other world, where they can transport them unmolested across borders so that drugs and other contraband can be moved around in our world without attracting attention from federal agents.

It’s a nifty premise and the characters are well drawn and easily identified with. I would say that this, along with ‘Halting State’, are probably Stross’ most accessible works and it’s the kind of story that will attract both Science Fiction and fantasy fans in equal measure. The intricacies of parallel world trade is fascinating and Miriam’s stubborn refusal to buy into the near-feudal misogynist culture of the parallel world is both amusing and thrilling in turns as people begin to object to her modern day thinking.

When Miriam meets a distant relative, Roland, who shares the same dim opinions of the family’s politics as she does, the story kicks into another gear and we are swept fully invested into their plans to revolutionise the parallel world’s culture and the Clan’s corrupt business model as they plan to help bring modern life to the dirt-poor peasants outside the nobility’s castles. The political intrigue is set for the start of what looks to be a fine series, adding to Charles Stross’ impressive range.

Tomas L. Martin

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