Stross, Charles. The Family Trade.

NY: Tor, 2004.

Stross is one of those authors I’ve never been sure about. I’ve enjoyed some of his stories but others have left me with a shrug. He always seems to be talked up as a great innovator in science fiction, the cream of the cream, but he just doesn’t affect me that way. This book, the first in the “Merchant Princes” series, isn’t a bad story but it certainly isn’t a masterpiece.

From the castle in the jacket illustration, I was sort of expecting a fantasy yarn, but it turns out to be a parallel-worlds story, very heavy on politics and economics. Miriam Beckstein is in her early thirties, a reasonably successful business and science journalist in Boston specializing in biotech (her abandoned medical school career turned out to be good for something). She’s been around — married, divorced, an abortion in college — and she’s got a good grip on her life. The key fact in her existence, though, is that her mother, name unknown, was murdered when Miriam was only a few weeks old and she was fostered on a young, hip academic couple. While those are the only parents she has ever known, she’s still aware of the mystery regarding her origins. Now her foster mother, who is seriously ill, has given her a shoebox full of old papers and mementos, including a gold locket with an oddly hypnotic knotwork design inside. And when she examines it, stares at it, she finds herself suddenly somewhere else — in a medieval-seeming world where the knights in armor also carry machine pistols. Miriam turns out to be a long-lost heiress to a serious fortune, a member of a powerful family in an alternate version of New England where (apparently) the Norse settled in permanently, in a world where Western Europe appears to be under Mongol control and California is run by the Chinese. Or something. Of course, she isn’t going to be allowed to sit back and enjoy her new fortune. Like it or not, she’s now a playing-piece, a pawn in the power struggles between family factions, and between the family and the outside world. She’s in some danger, including from her newly discovered blood relatives. And the “family trade” in import/export is not one she’s at all comfortable with when she looks into the details. But Miriam isn’t the sort of person to simply do what she’s told, and the last page makes it clear she intends (in the next volume) to take on the world.

Miriam is an excessively competent person, as is so often the case in alternate-world and time-travel novels. It doesn’t take her an hour to work out what’s happened to her and for her to begin making plans. Also, she seems to be angry all the time, alternating between high dudgeon and cold fury. Moreover, Stross is guilty of overwriting in places, including some rather turgid dialogue. Still, he’s got my interest sufficiently that I’ll be hunting up the next few volumes.

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