I was under the impression that this was a science fiction book set in the far future, with a family that controlled merchant interests across a far-flung, loosely-connected human civilization. I was completely off the mark on that … and I couldn’t be happier. The word for this book, I think, is romp. Specifically, it’s a low-tech/hi-fi political and corporate intrigue and espionage romp. I love heist movies. I live for that moment where the protagonist gets a bunch of people together and says, “Let’s rob a bank.” The Family Trade isń’t a heist novel, but it has that same vibe. The protagonist, Miriam Beckstein, gets sick of being a pawn in other people’s plans—so she forms an alliance of her own and decides to upset every other gambit in play. My kind of heroine.
I suppose I should backtrack and explain one essential plot point. Miriam is adopted. It thus follows, by the laws of Fictional Universes, that she is the Long Lost Something-or-other (TVTropes)—the last of her kind, or in this case, long lost daughter of an inter-universal mob. She’s a high-ranking heir in one of the six families of a Clan from a parallel dimension, and believe me, the bizarre starts there. With a medieval, pre-industrial culture rooted in Scandinavian-style language and mythology, the Clan and its world is backwards compared to our Earth. Members of Clan families have the intrinsic ability to walk between the two worlds, and bring anything they can carry along with them. This allows the Clan to operate a very limited import/export trade. And now that everyone knows Miriam exists, she is a rogue chess piece on the playing board. No one wants that.
Charles Stross doesn’t always wow me. I’ve liked almost all of his books so far, but it’s safe to say that only Palimpsest looms large in my mind (though I have a soft spot for Singularity Sky as well). As a thinker, he gets it when it comes to theorizing and philosophizing about humanity’s futures. And as a tech guy, he knows how to make with the sexy science talk. But his narratives have seldom managed to grab me and make me go whoa.
The Family Trade changes that for me. As I’ve read more of Stross’ work, particularly Rule 34, his skill at planning the arc of a story has become increasingly apparent. It’s even more visible here, where there are tantalizing hints at this vast new parallel world and society—as well as dark secrets even the Clan doesn’t know. Discovering all this along with Miriam is great fun, and the fact that she refuses to submit and just play along makes it all the more entertaining. Stross knows where subterfuge and subtlety is necessary and when the shit should hit the fan.
Miriam’s problems start almost immediately. She works for a magazine, and she discovers a criminal conspiracy of which the magazine’s parent company is a part. She realizes this too late and gets fired (and threatened). And if her day had stopped there, it would have sucked, but she could have moved on. Instead she pays a visit to her mother, retrieves a locket that was found on the body of her biological mother, and ends up sitting in her desk chair in the middle of a forest. Welcome to a parallel universe, Miriam. You just got more problems.
And her reaction is the reaction of a normal human being: she freaks out. Then her journalist instincts and training kick in, and she starts to think about how to document. She tries to replicate her results. She brings in outside help—a friend—and tries it again. Miriam’s methodical approach lands her in more trouble, yes, but it keeps an otherwise slow start to this story from feeling dull and lackadaisical. Instead, we’re treated to watching Miriam try to figure it out before the other shoe—which we know is there—drops.
What really surprised me, however, is how much I liked Roland and Olga. Stross really pulled a fast bait-and-switch, because our first glimpses of them are not in favourable lights. Roland shows up and sounds like a whiney brat who doesn’t get to play with the best toys. Olga sounds like, as Miriam herself describes her, an airhead ditz. Eventually we get to know them better, and while Roland is still a bit of an oaf, he has a three-dimensional personality and a good brain of his own. (I just wish the whole romance aspect didn’t feel so forced!) But Olga … I love Olga. She is a total paradox: raised in this backward world and never allowed to visit ours, she has very strict ideas about station and etiquette and comportment. She does seem like an airhead—harmless 15th-century nobility. And then she turns, and you can see the steel in her. She’s not quite a spymistress yet, but with a few more decades of practice … I have high hopes for her.
The other side of The Family Trade is the fusion of corporate espionage with royal backstabbing politics—a match made in some kind of writer heaven. As with Rule 34, much of the jargon Stross employs here goes over my head—I can grok “hostile takeover” and not much more. I’m a mathematician, but the moment financies or economics get involved, I start looking for the exit sign. My inability to understand the intricacies of these plots, however, didn’t much reduce my enjoyment of watching Miriam, Roland, Angbard, et al do their plotting. I just went along for the ride, and I’m glad I did.
These sort of parallel world, mixture of modern and medieval fantasy novels don’t always turn out well. (Case in point: The Fionavar Tapestry.) I was expecting something good from Stross, but instead I got something even better—probably the best Stross novel I’ve read since Palimpsest and Singularity Sky. Maybe it’s because it’s just so different from the science fiction I’m accustomed to seeing from him—the fantasy feels fresh but still very comfortable. If you were hoping for another nanotechnology-laden dream from a master of posthumanism, then this is not going to be it (I honestly don’t understand why I thought this was science fiction). But putting that expectation aside, The Family Trade is by all measures very satisfying.