Review of The Traders' War: A Merchant Princes Omnibus by Charles Stross
The Traders' War: A Merchant Princes Omnibus
by Charles Stross
Miriam Beckstein discovered that she can travel between worlds. In fact, she’s the lost scion of the Clan, a family of worldwalkers from the other world, which is at about a medieval level of tech development. Discovering the Clan’s monopoly on inter-world trade of devices and drugs, Miriam also stumbles into the middle of a Byzantine political situation. As matters rapidly deteriorate, The Traders’ War raises the stakes significantly for Miriam and friends: wedding bells, nuclear threats, and the watchful eye of Uncle Sam are only a few of the spectres in this second volume of the Merchant Princes omnibus series.
Reading Charles Stross is like sticking your head in an encyclopedia, that is on fire, inside a cart, also on fire, hurtling over the edge of a precipice (into fire). It’s an exhilarating and edifying experience but may leave some doubt as to whether you’ll survive. The Traders’ War is a thriller in the most technical sense, but it is full of dense, gooey infodumps. I spent half my time enthralled by the sheer brilliance of the plotting and economic thought required to create this universe … and the other half kind of waving a white flag in surrender and wondering why the hell I chose to read this instead of another Animorphs novel….
In other words, caveat emptor and all that: this novel is both exciting and stultifying, and it’s going to be up to you to decide which one wins out for you. Obviously from my rating and forthcoming praise, it’s the former for me.
This universe (multiverse, I guess), is just so intricately detailed. It’s one thing to come up with the premise of worldwalking and another to explore it so doggedly as Stross does here—but that’s, you know, kind of his thing. He takes a series of knowns and unknowns and tries to extrapolate from there: given a, b, c and x, y, z, what’s the most likely outcome for the future? In this case, if you can flit between two (and then three) different versions of North America at varying levels of technological development, what does that mean? And if your family carries the recessive gene for worldwalking and occupies a fragile, envied economical niche in your home dimension, how is this going to affect royal succession politics?
Reading science fiction is generally immersing yourself in a huge game of what if, but Stross takes that and cranks it up to 11. In The Traders’ War, the US government gets involved. Thanks to the DEA and Matthias’ defection, they now know about Gruinmarkt and the Clan, and they are worried this means war. Stross gets to write his most paranoid, most clandestine take on US government operations, batting around all-caps codenames and extrajudicial imprisonment like it’s going out of style. It’s hard to remember, but these books are set in the Bush era, so you can kind of think of this as an alternative history novel in which the Bush administration fought interdimensional drug smugglers instead of terrorists. (But it’s still, as one character remarks, all about the oil.)
Stross also expands on some of the mechanics of worldwalking in this volume. The US government attempts to crack the science behind the genetics and neurology of worldwalking. Meanwhile, Angbard has finally decided to let a small team experiment with using the Lee family knot in our world to try to access a fourth world. This results in some discoveries that seem likely to overturn a lot of the established wisdom regarding worldwalking. As is often the case, however, this hasn’t stopped anyone from continuing to prosecute their private little wars.
Miriam is back, of course, and continues to be an irascible yet flawed protagonist. She is always on the move, always rebounding from the latest set-back, reactive and proactive. I’m not sure I actually like her, mind you—she has a way of not considering the collateral damage to her friends when one of her schemes blows up in her face—but damn if she isn’t a dynamic and fun protagonist! She’s the proverbial wrench in everyone’s carefully-laid plans, a kind of chaotic good, and she is a force to be reckoned with.
More so than in The Bloodline Feud (as far as I can recall), we get other viewpoint characters. We follow Mike Fleming, Miriam’s ex and a DEA agent wrapped up in this investigation. We see a little bit from Brill’s point of view (I love Brill!) and some other worldwalkers. Stross also uses the conceit of translated “transcripts” included at the end of some chapters, which drop tantalizing tidbits of exposition and plot development but require us to deduce the speakers from context. I wasn’t a huge fan, but I think they do serve their purpose.
Above all else, I just relish Stross’ ability to balance those intense scenes of exposition with equally exciting moments of pure, adrenaline-charged action. There are gun battles, swordfights, explosions—basically all the stuff you want in a thriller. It’s here, in spades, complete with the possibility of an atomic bomb going off and subtle hints that there is more to worldwalking than anyone previously believed….
I’m very much looking forward to wrapping up the original trilogy soon with The Revolution Trade so I can pick up the start of the new trilogy. As always, Stross is just the perfect comfort read when I want something that will make me think but also hit me with a nice dose of action. You’re best served starting with The Bloodline Feud rather than here, but once you’ve read the first volume, just know that the second volume is even bigger and better than the first.