The Revolution Business (Merchant Princes #5), Charles Stross

Ace, 2009, 320 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1672-1

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If you’re going to start reading Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series, don’t crack open the first volume unless you know you can get every other book in short order.  Not only is it the kind of addictive storytelling that makes it difficult to stop reading once things get underway, but the combination of high-concept genre-blending, plot twists, large cast of character and complex intrigue makes it essential to keep going as so to keep the entire story alive in our heads.

I am writing this with some experience in the matter: I made the mistake of reading the first four volumes of the series in rapid succession in 2008, marooning me two books away from a satisfying conclusion.  I managed to restrain myself when the fifth volume appeared last year, but now that the sixth is in stores and concludes the series’ current story arc, I had to face the daunting prospect of re-immersing myself in a complex series two years later.

It’s an uphill climb at first, because The Revolution Business picks up briskly after the events of the fourth volume: The Clan of world-travelers previously introduced is besieged by enemies in two different worlds: Stuck in a civil war on a parallel Earth, they’re being viciously hunted down on this side by the US government after a failed attempt at nuclear blackmail by a renegade element.  The already slim chances of negotiation between our heroine Miriam and the elements of the American government charged with tracking down the world-walkers are getting slimmer as Miriam is trapped by the actions of her family and the US discovers that the Clan has stolen six portable nuclear weapons from its military inventory.  Things escalate steadily over the course of the novel until no less than two nuclear bombs are detonated before the last page is over.

After two years away from the series, I won’t try to claim supernatural powers of recognition: It took me about a hundred pages in The Revolution Business to be comfortable once more with the lengthy cast of characters, their multiple agendas and their unfolding plans.  Miriam, the character through which we entered this universe and with whom we spent so much time during the first two volumes of the series, gets very little screen time as Stross is busy moving the various pieces of his plot in place for the conclusion in the next book.  If The Revolution Business has one problem, it’s that it’s very obviously the third quarter of a longer four-book arc and, as such, is stuck in the narrative trap of escalation.  The wild inventiveness of the first three volumes, which introduced one new parallel Earth per book, slows down considerably: this may be Stross’s least idea-driven book so far, so busy is it with the plate-spinning mechanics of storytelling.  In fact, The Revolution Business spends nearly all of its length setting up the fourth volume, and doing so through about a dozen character streams.  Sometimes, it feels as if there is a lot of activity for the characters, but little actual progress in the overall plot.  On the other hand, the payoff is breathtaking: The last paragraph alone kills off one major sympathetic character and destroys a major city.

As you may guess, this isn’t a particularly hopeful passage in the Merchant Princes series.  A cycle that started off as fantasy before being revealed as Science Fiction gets remade in techno-thriller mode as more attention shifts to the American government reaction to the parallel-world intrusions.  As a terrifyingly creepy character takes over the reins of the official response and comes up with increasingly sophisticated devices to replicate the world-traveling capabilities of the Clan, the stakes get higher and higher.  Add to that the evidence of civil war between the Clan and the conservatives of the Gruinmarkt and no wonder this series gets darker at every page.  Some chilling snippets of intercepted conversations hint at even more depressing events to come.

Still, grimness can be exhilarating in Stross’ hands and part of the appeal of the series as it starts winding down is to wonder at how far he’ll push it.  This is an author who has already destroyed the world a few times in other stories: we can justifiably be concerned for his characters as they try to escape from events spinning out of control.  Now that the nuclear genie has been uncorked twice by the end of this volume, it’s anyone’s guess where this will go.  What seems clear is that the narrative arc started in The Hidden Family is ready to wind down, and I defy anyone who’s made it so far in the series not to start reading volume six as soon as they’re done with The Revolution Business.  If you’re about to start reading the series and you don’t have it nearby, don’t tell me I haven’t tried to warn you.

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