The Merchants’ War, Charles Stross

Tor, 2007, 336 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1671-4

Things never get any less complicated in this fourth volume in Charles Stross’ ongoing “Merchant Princes” series. Readers should be advised that in addition of being a fourth-in-a-series, The Merchants’ War is the second in a tightly-linked four-book sequence: They will be lost if they haven’t read the previous tomes, and few of the plot lines are resolved by the time the last chapter ends. Since, as of early 2008, the remaining books in the series still haven’t been published (that will have to wait until 2009), readers may want to stock the books for later reading.

But if you’re reading this in 2010 (lucky you!), here’s where things stood at the end of the third volume: Series heroine Miriam Beckstein, a journalist having discovered her talents for walking between the worlds, narrowly escaped a terrible wedding via an ever more terrible coup against the world-walking Clans. Lost on the unfriendly streets of Third-Earth New London, it’s time for her to take back control of her own destiny, even at the risk of making waves against the authoritarian regime of New Britain. There are a lot of dueling plot-lines by this point in the series, and it’s a mind-bender to try to keep up with them all. Even Miriam, after being in the spotlight for the first books of the series, is becoming just another character among many even as her role in this book is a little more active than her forced isolation in the third tome. A fourth reality even gets added to the mix this time around, proving that things can never get too complicated. But Stross’ clean style, combined with his usual humor and hard-edged understanding of economic realities, is enough to keep things hopping.

The series also keeps shifting in tone. The Merchant Princes have never been completely fantasy, but as the US government starts studying world-walking after being tipped off at the end of the second volume, Stross is bringing the series ever closer to Science Fiction: There is a superb sequence set in top-secret government laboratories in which the jargon flies as thickly as in Stross’ more conventional SF novels, and that in return promises even more interesting developments in latter books.

In parallel, a team of explorers from Miriam’s clan has also set out to explore the possibilities of world-walking as a science, discovering a fourth Earth that hints of a long-gone advanced civilization. That sequence is also one of the highlights of the book, and also promises much in latter novels.

At the same time, The Merchants’ War also keeps the series firmly set in the techno-thriller genre. After the incidents of the third volume, everyone is racing to find where the Clan’s “nuclear insurance policy” is located in Boston, and the scene in which they do find out is second in horrified interest only to the scene in which they discover another bomb they didn’t know about. Oh yes, this is a lively book.

The twists and turns keep piling up, as do the ideas and character revelations. The mix of technologies that the Clan uses against the Nobility’s aggression is intriguing, even as it’s an excuse for a few laughs—such as transporting “re-enactors” forces in a schoolbus.

But trying to review things at this point is like seeing half a movie and being asked for comments. The best thing to say so far is that the rhythm, inventiveness and quality of The Merchant Princes is intact after four books, and that all signs point to even more fascinating follow-ups. Sadly, these follow-ups still have to be published, and there are at least two of them to go before a natural breathing point.

So there’s really no news to report: if you like the series, this book isn’t going to change your mind, but any further development will have to wait until everything is out.

So, reader-from-2010, how good was it?

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