Wednesday, February 25, 2009

BOOKS: Review- The Merchants' War

I have a nit to pick with Charles Stross, the British writer behind the brilliant Merchant Princes series, of which The Merchants' War is the fourth volume. Either write quicker or end your books somewhere far, far away from the cliff's edge. Your choice, I will accept either.

Oh, and can you start with a little more "what has gone on before" exposition at the start of the book? I have to admit, you hit the ground running in The Merchants' War, while I had been away from the series for awhile. It was the better part of a year since I finished Clan Corporate wondering who would survive the big bang in the book. Turns out fewer than I thought.

Nothing wrong with that. Wasn't that interested in seeing how our little heroine, Miriam would make out, making out with The Idiot. On the other hand, The Idiot's brother Egon has turned into a first-rate villain, seemingly taking over Gruinmarkt by being rather cleverer than our run of the mill SF despots. In essence, the transcendence of Egon into a horribly bad bad guy is the main reason for reading this book. It's a chapter of the greater epic, worthy on its own, if read in sequence.

Should you rush out and buy this book and read it tonight? No. The reading of the first three books, The Family Trade, The Hidden Families and Clan Corporate are mandatory. I might even suggest holding off for the next two books in the series. The fifth comes out in April and is called The Revolution Business. Stross claims he's 80 per cent done the concluding book of the series, The Trade of Queens, which will be due out in 2010. (My source is Charlie himself, in his blog)

The idea would be to savour the development of Stross' melding of three different realities, connected by the ability of some to walk the dimensional gaps between them. Each reality is an Earth gone skewed. Well except for our current Earth (which you might, or might not, believe is skewed enough). Miriam Beckstein has a humdrum existence in this world until she gets herself into a spot of trouble and wakes up with a headache on Gruinmarkt, an Earth still stuck in the feudal society level. A vaguely Germanic society, it is, apparently, Miriam's original birthplace.

Her family, the one alluded to in all the titles, is made of traders who have glommed onto power by becoming couriers of a sort. The members who can 'walk,' take in goods at specialized locales in our Earth. Crossing over to Gruinmarkt, they then move the goods to the desired end location, and then walk back. No borders or fussy governmental officers to contend with, although the travel through Gruinmarkt isn't all that safe. However, what is achieved is safe transfer of the goods from one point to the next on our Earth. The drug smugglers are very appreciative.

So, Miriam's family is rich in ways their fellow Gruinkind can't comprehend. But can get jealous of. The result is an internecine battle that forms one major plotting point for the series. Then there's Miriam, who is quite the walking talent. She finds a THIRD world to visit, New Britain. Think 19th-Century England with control over the USA in a Jules Verne-like world. Add on the worst aspects of 1950's paranoia and you have a lady-unfriendly world for Miriam to strive to find success in.

Miriam's interaction with current society and with trying to raise the level of living in both a feudal society and pre-suffragette England/USA using tools from 'back home.' are what make reading this series worthwhile. The overall picture is brilliant. The execution is mostly really, really well done.

Except that speed of production thing. And the ending of books on cliff-hangers. And not getting readers who HAVEN'T lived with the book for a decade up to speed quickly. And the knowledge the next two books are out in short enough order to wait.

IF you can overlook THOSE nits, than have at it. Go ahead and read the book. You're going to have to read it eventually, even if I have to come over and stand over you until you do.

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