Tor, 2006, 320 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30930-0
I won’t claim that Charles Stross can do no wrong: after all, I’ve read his web-published early novel Scratch Monkey and it’s still early in his career (his first novels were more or less published in 2003), but The Clan Corporate, third book in the “Merchant Princes” series, is a superb example of how he’s one of the most reliable, interesting and entertaining genre writers currently working.
Ignore the “fantasy” label on the book jacket: Stross develops even his “fantasy” novels with the rigor and sheer extrapolative joy that is to be found in the best science-fiction. (This is, after all, the type of parallel-universe fantasy indistinguishable from sufficiently-advanced plot science.) But this third volume furthers bends the genre classification of the series by introducing strong thriller elements that take this novel to the boundaries of the techno-thriller.
If you remember the end of the previous volume, you’re probably wondering how much mayhem a high-ranking defection has caused for Miriam Beckstein and her family. The answer, as you may guess, is more trouble than anyone can seem to handle: The Clan operations are in disarray, especially now that the US government has taken an interest in world-walking. The defector’s insurance policy, a nuclear device hidden somewhere in an American city, keeps ticking away despite all-out efforts to find the device. New characters make appearances, none more intriguing than Mike Fleming, an ex-boyfriend of Miriam’s, now working for the DEA but drafted in a new deep-secret interdepartmental government effort to find out more about the world-walkers smuggling merchandise just under their noses. In a post-9/11 environment featuring “Daddy Warbucks” as a particularly ruthless vice-president, the US government really isn’t playing nice.
Oh yes, the “Merchants Princes” series hasn’t yet made its SF underpinning clear, but we’re not in fantasyland any more. Stross’ keen nose for thriller mechanics is familiar to fans of his “Laundry” sequence, but it’s developed to great effect here, placing Miriam against yet another capable enemy. Better yet, this volume’s introduction of real-world thriller elements makes it feel even closer to our reality than ever before.
Not that she needs the extra complications, in between setting up a new business in third-Earth New London and trying to keep her own family away from her. After the events of the previous volumes, no one is particularly keen on seeing Miriam run around without supervision—she eventually finds out the limits of her freedom after a particularly bad mistake. Poked, prodded and ceremoniously prepared for unwanted nuptials, Miriam comes to realize that it will take the intervention of a third party to free her. Fortunately, third parties aren’t particularly rare in this series so far…
Plot twists, developments and extended idea riffs continue to abound in this superbly readable entry in the series. The ending is abrupt, but the multi-party power struggle makes the plot deliciously convoluted, and the series’ distinction of featuring an abundance of very smart characters continues to produce unexpected sparks of interest. Miriam’s becoming less of a central character, but the series continues to chug along without any dip in interest. Stross has hit a fertile streak with this series, and his execution so far will be enough to reassure any reader that the series is in good hands.
Still, one crucial word of warning to the impatient: The Clan Corporate is the first in a tightly-linked sequence of four books: It ends with a flurry of new plot developments and an unpleasant cliff-hanger. People susceptible to hissy fits over incomplete stories may want to stock up and wait until the fourth volume in the sequence comes out in 2009. Yes, that’s a long time. But it’ll be worth it.