So I've mentioned The Family Trade obliquely in my other two Charles Stross reviews: Glasshouse, and The Atrocity Archives. I read it on a plane trip one year and I believe I read Singularity Sky on the same trip. I've vaguely described it as too dense to read on a plane ride and I think I have to back away from that statement. I recently decided to reread it and go ahead and catch up on the other books in the Merchant Princes series. As of this writing I've reread The Family Trade, read The Hidden Family, and I'm about a third of the way through The Clan Corporate. (And while I was on a Stross tear I picked up The Jennifer Morgue but it is still in the slush pile on my nightstand.)
So I currently think that Singularity Sky is the one that I found super-dense, but I guess I'd have to reread that to be sure. I can say that on rereading The Family Trade it seemed quite straightforward. I think I formed an impression from Singularity Sky and just painted The Family Trade with the same brush. I don't know, maybe I was just tired the day I read it. I didn't really devour The Family Trade in a single sitting on the reread, but I did tear through it (and the sequel) in about two days and never felt like I was reading "too much".
As usual in my reviews I'll avoid spoilers for the book in question. Maybe one or two super-minor spoilers, but nothing more than the back cover of the book itself.
The Family Trade is almost self-conscious in the way it starts a big multi-volume series. We start with an introduction to Miriam Beckstein, a tech reporter in modern day Boston. The date isn't set specifically, but it's obviously early 21st century - post the Web bubble, post 9/11, and I think it might even reference "Web 2.0" a few times. Miriam gets herself in some modern-day hot water and goes to her adoptive mother for advice. Her mother gives her a box of stuff relating to her adoption, and the bizarre death of her birth mother. One thing leads to another and before Miriam knows it she's found out can travel between modern America and a parallel universe with a bizarre mecentile culture on the other side. And now the story really begins - all of what I just laid out both omits several key details and only covers up through page 28 of my paperback copy. Even while it zips right along there's an unescapable feeling of hurrying - that we've got so much material to get through before we get to the good bits. There's nothing exactly wrong with how fast it moves and I'm sure there's a tension to get to the fantasy already in such an undertaking, but I found myself wishing for a slower pace to establish her "safe" world before everything turns inside out. I think a putative reader who wasn't already familiar with modern culture would be a little non-plussed, because much is only sketched briefly and Stross relies on the reader to fill in the gaps in Miriam's background.
Once we get to the alternate world things only start moving faster. Miriam finds out a lot about her past and it quickly becomes clear that her birth-family is not going to leave her alone. If she wants to return to Boston and her "normal" life she'll have to come to some sort of accomodation with her relations. Complications pile upon complication and before you know it you come to a bit of a cliffhanger ending. Go buy the next book already would you?
I like the book, and it's interesting to see Stross turn his attention to fantasy instead of science fiction. (And he sneakily turns his fantasy into alternate history pretty quickly. The new world has a fleshed out history that seems logical, and the only real fantastical element is the existence of the world walkers. There's no magic per se, although the ramifications of the world-walking can be seen as magical by some observers.) My major reservation about recommending it would have to do with the series nature of the story. If you like The Family Trade you're going to want more. And I'll warn you now that the entire series isn't out yet. The third book is only out in hardcover, and the fourth book comes out in October. I'm not sure if there is a fifth book planned or not.
The parallels between The Merchants Princes and Roger Zelazny's Amber books are hard to miss. Both have a family firmly astride multiple realities and both feature dynastic intrigue as a key element. So if you liked Amber then I think it's likely you'll find The Family Trade appealing. At the same time I'll caution you that Amber has more fantastical elements. The Family Trade is almost hard sci-fi in a way. It takes one fantastical proposition (the world-walker mutation) and builds everything else from there in sound fashion. Even the nature of a recessive gene is accounted for in describing how the Clan comes into being, and how they manipulate their own marriages in order to guarantee more world-walkers.
It's not the tour-de-force that Accelerando is, nor is it as fluffy as The Atrocity Archives, but there's solid storytelling and fantastic world-building on display here. As long as you're willing to sign up for four or more books then you could do much worse than to read The Family Trade.
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