Review of The Revolution Trade by

Book cover for The Revolution Trade

Mmm, nearly 600 pages of comfort food.

Going to make a few assumptions here, namely, that you have read the first two books in this omnibus series, and so you’ll be fine with me spoiling those books (but not this one). If that isn’t true, you might want to stop reading now.

Similarly, since you have read the first two books, I’m not going to spend any time explaining or justifying why this series is something you should read. If you have stuck with Charles Stross this far, then you’re probably in this for the long haul. If you read book 2 and were like, “I’m done,” then book 3 is not going to change your mind.

The Traders’ War was notable in that, as the title implies, it’s about conflicts within the Clan itself. Miriam finds herself on the knife’s edge of a schism between conservative and liberal factions, with her uncle Angbard trying to sort out the mess and avoid all-out war. With all the unfortunate events that happen, as a kind of series, if you will, Miriam’s status now as the expectant mother of the heir to the Gruinmarkt throne, with Angbard suffering a stroke and the Clan under attack from all sides, leaves her in a tricky position. But it’s also a position she can exploit. The Revolution Trade is all about the old Ferengi Rule of Acquisition: the riskier the road, the greater the profit.

This book, more than the other two, reminds me of the what-if political extrapolation games Stross used to play back on his blog, back in the days before the Singularities of Brexit and Trump. Economics still has a role in this story, insofar as it is a motivation for regime changes. However, we are in full-on alternative history mode now. Whereas the earlier stories made references to 2003-era Bush and Cheney, Stross goes one further here. Cheney actually shows up on page, and certain things happen that irrevocably sever this timeline from the one we inhabit. Go big or go home.

Stross’ willingness to take these risks, and to keep having everything go pear-shaped for his characters, shattering their Plans C through H, is what makes The Revolution Trade so enjoyable for me. It’s entirely possible to tell this story in a more straightforward, more predictable, more linear route. That would result in an enjoyable, entertaining story with a lot of good science-fictional thinking to it. But Stross isn’t going to settle for that, oh no—he’s risking it all. He’s gambling on the fact that we can tolerate his trademark tangents and infodumps because they add so much more depth and richness to this experience. And I totally can. (If you can’t, refer to my third paragraph, where I kindly show you the door.)

I didn’t always agree with parts of Stross’ scenarios. At one point he describes how Congress unanimously does something, just because of a terrorist 9/11-style event that scares them into not wanting to look weak on security. I get where he’s going, and maybe that’s really what could have happened in 2003. It’s just hard, these days, to imagine Congress doing much unanimously. I’d put money on there being at least one person, if not several, refusing to vote in favour of something on “principles” even if it really were the best thing for the country (which these measures, in the story, were not). Yet these differences of opinion between Stross and myself are minor.

More important than the political backdrop, though, is what happens to all our favourite characters!

Miriam is a hard one in this book. I feel like we see less of her, as we follow a few other characters too. And while she certainly has agency, she doesn’t necessarily do as much in this book as she did previously. She is a co-conspirator rather than a solo or free agent, if you will.

Brill and the related cadre of Clan characters return too. I really enjoy her, and she’s in fine form in this book. The same goes for characters like Huw or Olga, each of whom adds something special to the story. If you actually sit down and count them, Stross’ named cast must number in the hundreds by now, so it’s nice how he deploys certain characters in very predictable ways to help us keep track of the story.

Mike and related American characters are back. Of all the characters in this instalment, Mike might be the one who experiences the most dramatic growth. I’ll confess I was never a huge fan of Mike from the beginning. I recognize his importance in the story, and it’s not that he’s a bad guy or anything—but he just feels a little bland, you know? Stross does his best to differentiate his characters; he’s really good at their diction, at laying on accents, etc. But at the end of the day, the moment he shoves exposition into their mouths, they all start sounding the same. Mike is a little too generic-goody-guy for me.

As the title implies, The Revolution Trade introduces even more game-changing elements. Stross further explores the idea that there are more than just the three worlds. He alters the balance of power in all three worlds in multiple ways. Virtually every chapter introduces a new twist or a new development, and it’s a gloriously energetic experience. Despite the length and density of this intricately-plotted story, Stross ultimately makes sure that we aren’t ever bored, that our eyes don’t glaze over as a result of all the economical, political, or historical speculating he runs past us.

Stross wraps up this story in the sense that he has exhausted the best avenues for storytelling. By this I mean, he has brought the series to a climax, and everywhere from here just leads towards more and more tying-up of loose ends. I’m very excited that the sequel series, Empire Games, starts in 2020, seventeen years on. I think the time jump will be enough to inject some new life into the story, let Stross distance himself from some of these details, and add whole new dimensions to the plots he leaves fallow here. The Revolution Trade isn’t necessarily what I call a satisfying conclusion, but it’s definitely a fun and exciting third book in a trilogy that is the beginning of something much larger, and, knowing Stross, even weirder.

Engagement

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