The Hidden Family, Charles Stross

Tor, 2005, 303 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31347-2

Readers who thought that Charles Stross’ fantasy debut The Family Trade was heavily in clever details, plot twists and smart characters are about to get even more good stuff for their money with this follow-up: The Hidden Family piles on more complications, more developments and even more worlds to explore.

This fantasy series’s premise is that a genetic trait in some humans allow them to travel between parallel worlds, at the price of terrible headaches. The first to discover this ability were inhabitants of another world, one that, by the early twenty-first century, is still stuck in medieval times. Using our world as a source of high technology, those families were able to consolidate their power base thanks to illegal trading on behalf of cartels in our world. (Think about a parallel world without border guards…) One of the several wild cards in this scheme is the sudden re-appearance of one Miriam Beckstein, a long-lost relative who was unknowingly raised in our world as an orphan, eventually becoming a high-tech/business journalist before discovering her gifts and being coerced in the family business. The Family Trade delivered a lot of back-story and intrigue in a short time and The Hidden Family picks off right where the previous book ended, not an accidental choice given how both books were conceived as a while unit before being split for publication.

The first big twist of this installment, as hinted in the first volume, is that there is another world out there. Not just another America, roughly technologically equivalent to Victorian England, but another family of world-walkers waging war on the clans known to Miriam’s family. Our heroine is quick to seize upon this opportunity and see the potential profit margins in enabling technological transfers between more worlds. There are complications, of course: The regime at the other end is a totalitarian monarchy that wouldn’t take lightly to Miriam’s revolutionary ideas. And Miriam can’t go directly from here to there, but has to set up a transfer point in her family’s intermediate universe.

As if those new developments weren’t enough, Miriam’s power base in her family is still very much in jeopardy: Her secret love affair with a cousin is already material for blackmail, her relatives can’t stand her lack of manners, and even the senior members of her family are contemplating whether she’s bringing in more trouble than she’s worth. Palace intrigue, plots and counter-plots all unfold in complex patterns, even as a key member of Miriam’s family business plans treason and defection…

Fortunately, Stross’ crackling prose not only keeps all of those development as clear as possible, it makes reading the book an engrossing experience. This is one of those “just one more chapter” novels that hypnotize readers until the last page, leaving them wanting even more.

Plot-wise, this is almost as busy as the previous installment, and the ideas just keep on piling up. The interactions between the world are rich in implications: the doppelgangering of locations in dual worlds, for instance, is an idea that constantly reveals new facets. The economic implications of world-walking are cogently explored (even if only conceptually as of yet) while the realities of a renaissance-era world-view constantly rub Miriam the wrong way, offering a subtle counterpoint to the triumphant medievalism so prevalent in classical fantasy.

The Hidden Family is just the second installment in an ongoing series, so readers shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the end of this book only offers a respite of sorts for Miriam, just as other things go catastrophically wrong. There’s plenty of material for future plot threads here, and yet other possibilities remain unexplored for now, though I don’t doubt that Stross is busy preparing how best to integrate them in future installments.

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