The Family Trade, Charles Stross

Tor, 2004, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30929-7

Most polls prove it: the single biggest reason why people pick up books by specific authors is because they are already familiar with their work. In an American market where 100,000 books are published every year and most people don’t read even one book per month, why should casual readers take a gamble on unproven authors when they can just buy a “name” book knowing what to expect?

Of course, some authors make an effort to avoid being pigeonholed. Although Charles Stross is better known for idea-crammed Science Fiction, he consciously diversified genre, publisher and readership with The Family Trade, delving into so-called fantasy for Tor Books. His process was even amusingly codified on his blog as “Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series”. But when a quintessential Science Fiction writer like Stross feels free to play in another genre, no one should be surprised if some of his established strengths carry through the genre frontiers.

So the result is a book labeled as fantasy, but conceived according to the rigor of hard-SF. Miriam Beckstein is a Boston-based high-tech/business journalist, but her latest scoop is more trouble than her bosses can stand: she finds herself fired and sent home. Coincidentally, an artifact from her past unlocks a latent ability to travel between parallel worlds, at the price of terrible headaches.

It’s a promising setup, but it’s what Stross does with it afterward that transforms The Family Trade from a run-of-the-mill fantasy (“Plucky orphan discovers that she’s rich and powerful in another world”) to an excellent start to an ongoing series. Whereas lesser writers may have dawdled in describing the wonders of discovering another parallel universe, Stross thinks harder: The parallel world is still at a medieval-era level of development, and taking advantage of world-walking isn’t simple when there’s another culture and language to learn. But it gets better, because Miriam is far from being the only world-walker, and the rest of her family really doesn’t want her running around without supervision. Miriam may be fearsomely intelligent (there are no “you stupid heroine” moments here), but her opponents are just as crafty in their own way, and her continued existence depends on a web of complex political alliances more than her family’s filial bonds. Further revelations make it even clearer that the source of the family fortune is not legal, and that other families definitely want Miriam to die.

In between learning the social rules of her second universe and defeating assassination attempts, Miriam turns her business experience into a plan to profit from her ability. Complications quickly pile upon further complications, making The Family Trade a lively and sometimes-unpredictable read.

Stross’s typical strengths are a mixture of accessible prose, fascinating ideas and a willingness to engage with social and economic issues. All of those traits are admirably deployed in The Family Trade, resulting in a mesmerizing reading experience. This is a terrific first volume in an ongoing series, although impatient readers should be warned that this is really the first half of a tightly-linked two-volume set: Get both The Family Trade and its follow-up The Hidden Family if you want to reach a satisfactory conclusion to Miriam’s initial adventure.

But Stross fans already know that everything the man writes is gold: In the past five years since Singularity Sky, Stross has established himself as a solid and reliable writer whose books just keep on getting better and better. Now even the most reluctant anti-fantasy readers can pick up this series without fear of disappointment. And as Stross cold-bloodedly designed, this is a series with quasi-limitless potential. If Stross can keep up the density of plot developments, this is going to be a wild ride.

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