Review of Empire Games by Charles Stross
by Charles Stross
It has been somewhat more than a year since I read The Revolution Trade. Meanwhile, almost 20 years have passed between the events of that story and Empire Games. Miriam Beckstein, considerably older, is now a Commissioner in the revolutionary government in the timeline formerly hosting New Britain. Her adopted-out daughter, Rita Douglas, is about to be recruited by the U.S. government as a clandestine agent. Everything else is ready to go pear-shaped at a moment’s notice … because of course it is.
Empire Games is a soft reboot of the Merchant Princes series. That is to say, Charles Stross has found a way to have his cake and eat it too: he has continued the storyline of this series while at the same time given new readers an entry point into the series without having to read the earlier books. While you will certainly have a better appreciation for what’s happening in this world, and a firmer grasp on Miriam’s character, if you read the earlier books, you can also appreciate this novel as the start of a “new” series. Because it really is. The Clan, the eponymous princes of the previous series, is gone. The world-walker refugees of the Clan are an entirely different organization now. And the challenges that they and the U.S. government face are quite different, because Stross has opened up his universe into a multiverse with bigger, scarier foes.
If you have read Stross' works before then you know what to expect at this point. This is a book in love with its own jargon, a book religiously steeped within its own mythos. Stross loves exposition and infodumping almost as much as he loves figuring out how to disguise exposition and infodumping as necessary plot bulwarks—and sometimes it even works. That is, when he isn’t busy playing hypothetical game theory scenarios out over parallel timelines. Like you do.
Rita is a lousy protagonist when it comes to agency and character development. She just kind of shuttles around various supervisors. Even once she meets and interacts with Miriam, she herself doesn’t do much except gape and converse. About halfway through the novel Stross slings a love interest her way, and the two of them strike up a relationship in the blink of an eye.
Meanwhile, Miriam gets much less page time in this book. That, in and of itself, is fine. Unfortunately, the time she gets isn’t that interesting. It’s lots of meetings and Sorkinesque walk-and-talk sessions where she explains why X will happen if Y doesn’t happen and that would Be Bad for Everyone. Although Rita has replaced her as the heroine who lacks agency in this book, Miriam herself doesn’t seem to be doing much? At least, not in the part of the story we get to see—we skipped the boring twenty years of hard work she put in transforming the Commonwealth into the new society it has become.
Finally, the fact it takes an entire book to manoeuvre everyone into place to basically say, “Both sides have mature adults who agree that we should talk through backchannels” is somewhat underwhelming.
These are all ways of me saying that Empire Games, while satisfying a certain itch that I have, definitely doesn’t get off the hook just because it scratches. It is a good story but not a great. There is nothing wrong with that. I just can’t help but want more.
I want to learn more about the Forerunners and their adversary. I want to see this cross-timeline brinkmanship play out in the shadow of nuclear war between the Commonwealth and France. I want to see Rita, Miriam, et al actually make decisions instead of reacting to what everyone else is doing.
Maybe we’ll see those things in subsequent books! Maybe not. I will probably keep reading, though. I like this series in the way that most people, I suspect, like most thrillers: they enjoy the action and the … uh … thrill … even while acknowledging that the story and characters themselves are usually not the deepest. Empire Games is a thriller for snobs who don’t want to like thrillers. Me, basically.