Re: Merchants’ War

Miriam Beckstein, intrepid high-tech journalist, discovers she is really a lost daughter of a clan that can travel between worlds. And she is not pleased. Before I go on, make sure you’ve read the previous books in Charles Stross‘s Merchant Prince series: The Family Trade, The Hidden Family, Clan Corporate, and the latest book Merchants’ War.

Back already? That didn’t take long, did it? These books are fast reads, more like chapters in an extended series than like books. In each one, the action builds to a bigger and bigger cliffhanger. Merchants’ War just stops in the middle of a battle. Maddening! If I wanted to leave off in the middle of the action, I could have put it down at any point. But I didn’t.

The worlds are the best part. I like how each version of eastern North America has its own concerns. The Clan come from Gruinmarkt, which is mired in feudalism. Miriam founds a business in New Britain, where the American revolution never took place. The least interesting and most annoying world is called the “USA”, but either it’s actually a close variant of our world, or those sections are riddled with errors. And the clumsy dialogue of the “Americans” doesn’t help.

While there’s lots of political intrigue, dirty tricks, and outright war moving the plot along, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace. Miriam meets her family. Miriam starts a business. Miriam is grounded. That last, the third book, had me worried; the story was spinning its wheels in the mud. Now, Miriam is on the loose, and she’s going somewhere. No telling where, but I feel reassured that the story knows where she is going. Good thing, too. There are at least more two books coming out. At least.

Since I like the worlds, I was happy when three young world-walkers explore a melted dome on a sinister Ice World. Here, it looks like our current technology was discovered years ago, and a nuclear war has left the world in a new glaciation. I’m also glad to see sci-fi hand-waving begin to justify the Clan’s powers. Knights in armor do not mean fantasy!

I found myself admiring the new King Egon for his ingenuity in dealing with the Clan. Some of it gives the Clan trouble (like the old machine guns), and for some it turns out the Clan has countermeasures (like the “treason room”).

What I find most instructive is the use of multiple viewpoints. In this book sixteen characters get to be a viewpoint at least once, but I rarely felt lost. The book opens with camera eye, descending over the first three pages into Otto, Baron Neuhalle, as he and the Duke of Innsmouth survey the damage left by the ending of the previous book. There are a few other scenes that use camera eye, and several that appear to be surveillance transcripts, but the vast majority of scenes plunge into tight third person, the first sentence briskly establishing who we’re with and/or where we are. Since the characters are on several worlds, sometimes the “who” implies the “where” and vice versa. Whenever we enter a new viewpoint, we’ve always met the character before, if not in this book, then in a previous one. There is no fixed order of presentation.

I was so relieved to see this. I think this will help me work out viewpoints in my own mess of a multiple viewpoint epic.

Tomorrow: snack break


2 thoughts on “Re: Merchants’ War

  1. I can’t shake the feeling that Stross is writing these for the money, that is to say to a greater extent than his other work. On the other hand, there is no shame in writing well for money, and he shows generally good craftsmanship in these—but I think he’s not plotting as tightly as he normally would because he’s got a few more books in the series to deliver.

    Still, I have a theory about judging the quality of an area’s food products: how good is the every-day, non–special-place examples? E.g., as far as I’m concerned, you’re better off getting a bagel at random in Manhattan thatn in Boston’s best bagelry. This long tangent is a way of saying that the mark of a very good writer might well be the quality of her less-than-best work.

  2. As I’ve said before, I don’t love Stross’s books, but I do find him reliably entertaining. If you want to continue the metaphor, he’s more like a giant, bagel-shaped piece of bread–however tasty–than a malty little bagel that fights back.

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