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The Family Trade
Tor paperback £6.99
review by Jonathan McCalmont
It's difficult to avoid Charlie Stross at the moment. Despite being around for years it was only with his Hugo nomination for Singularity Sky that he reached a wider audience. However, now that he has arrived Charles Stross is officially the cat's pyjamas. Lauded as a future star by no less august an organ than The London Times, Stross recently released Iron Sunrise to critical acclaim, and followed this up almost immediately with the free online release of his newest book Accelerando under a creative commons license. However, while Stross is proving himself to be at the forefront of literary sci-fi, I'm not going to write about his SF today but his work in the field of fantasy.
Owing an acknowledged debt to Zelazny's Amber and Piper's Parazone, The Family Trade sees the resurrection of the often-ignored world walking fantasy subgenre. The book tells the story of Miriam Beckstein, a highly educated technology journalist who gets fired for trying to investigate the wrong set of shady deals. Somewhat at a loss as to what to do Miriam turns to her adoptive mother who gives her an envelope containing the affects of her murdered birth mother. This envelope includes a strange locket that allows Miriam to travel to an alternate medieval version of Earth. Miriam quickly discovers that this ability to travel between worlds is a family trait and the family in question are more Machiavellian and ruthless than the Borgias and the Medicis combined. The family use the ability to travel between worlds to smuggle drugs and while they may embrace many of the more useful trappings of our contemporary Earth, they are hopelessly stuck in the past. In this volume of what is proving to be a series, Miriam begins to understand the political complexity of her new family and, by using allies old and new, she tries to find some kind of powerbase for herself before she's murdered or forced to marry for the good of the clan.
Despite this being a fantasy novel, Stross clearly approaches the topic of world walking with the rigour and intellectual flair of a literary science fiction author. Apart from the issue of how people travel between worlds, every aspect of Stross' world is picked over and analysed by his cerebral protagonist Miriam. As a stranger in a strange land, Miriam is forced to rely on her academic knowledge to make sense of her new world. This allows Stross to carefully introduce new ideas and rigorously work out what they would mean for a trading empire that spans our world and a medieval alternate Earth. The social structure of Miriam's family is carefully discussed before Stross looks into the realities of inter-dimensional trade and the characters discuss theories of development economics. Where Zelazny was lavish and sloppy with his ideas, Stross is frugal and rigorous producing a book that feels a lot less like fantasy and a lot more like a substantial piece of science fiction. However, that is not to say that this is some dense intellectual study because, despite its substance, the book feels as light as a feather.
As a writer famed for his ideas (and perhaps because of it), Stross' prose style is beautifully lucid and clear to the point of transparency. Stross juggles complicated ideas and interlaces them with courtly intrigue, action and romance without the sections ever seeming overly long (compare this with Stephenson's 50-page digressions in the Baroque cycle and you'll realise what an achievement that is). The plot advances at a brisk pace and the characters are well rendered and genuinely engaging without ever dominating proceedings (apart from the fact that Miriam occasionally speaks like Sam Spade for no apparent reason). This is also quite an achievement given the amount of political intrigue in the book. Every new encounter with her family forces Miriam to look for the angles and try to work out what's going on in order to stay alive, but despite the introspection the book never drops into the self-indulgent paranoia, strategy speak or over-analysis of the Dune and Ender's Shadow novels. Stross is clearly a gifted juggler as he keeps all of these difficult balls in air, beautifully balancing plot, characterisation and idea development. Only occasionally does a ball slip and fall to the ground.
The central romance between Miriam and her cousin Roland comes about too quickly. One minute Miriam is casually reflecting how handsome her cousin is, the next they're in bed, then in love and finally Miriam's considering whether to spend the rest of her life with him. The book's time-frame is a couple of weeks at most and Miriam and Roland don't spend much more than the equivalent of a weekend together. The result is a relationship that never really convinces and therefore slightly undermines Miriam's sudden flashes of paranoia and reluctance to completely trust her cousin and jars with Mirriam's otherwise careful personality. However, more introspection would likely have slowed the pace and given that this book is part of a series there's plenty of room for more character development later. But this lightness of touch is also problematic elsewhere.
The final act of this book is problematic in that Stross suddenly shifts gears from Miriam gently finding her way in courtly politics to Miriam analysing and making snap decisions about three parallel attempts on her life backed by different factions. In the final 40 pages or so the twists and developments come so thick and fast that it's unclear what it is that's actually going on despite Miriam clearly having worked it all out. However, again this is clearly done to keep the pace brisk and is fairly understandable especially as there's room for a post-mortem scene later.
While The Family Trade is not a book without weaknesses, it is something of a minor technical triumph. Stross carefully weighs pace against depth of character, plot and idea and does it all in a package that barely passes the 300-page mark. At a time when most fantasy novels are as thick as phone books and are frequently little more than bloated exercises in world building with huge casts of characters and lists of subplots with no substantial ideas whatsoever, Charlie Stross produces a short and beautiful novel that is pared down to the bones. There is nothing in this novel that could be trimmed out. In fact the book could have benefited from being a little bit longer and allowing a tiny bit more depth. As it is though, Stross' decision to write his series as a number of short fat-free novels rather than as bloated doorstops is laudable and is reminiscent of the approach adopted by Zelazny in publishing his Amber books. Perhaps Stross' homage to Zelazny will extend beyond genre and tropes to means of publication?
Apart from a few minor niggles, this return to a sadly overlooked genre is a technical and intellectual tour de force by a writer who is clearly firing on all cylinders. It brings together the best aspects of escapist fantasy with the intellectual rigour one would expect from a rising star in the world of literary sci-fi. A minor triumph, heartily recommended.
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