Ace, 2010, 303 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1673-8
When Charles Stross says he’s going to destroy something, believe him.
If The Trade of Queens is notable for something, it’s the finality with which this sixth volume upsets the nice fantasy universe introduced at the beginning of the Merchant Princes series. As the narrative has moved away from comfort-fantasy elements to a harder-edged techno-thriller mode (not your usual genre-shifting progression!), Stross seems determined to eradicate his starting premise with a vengeance…
…but a more general assessment seems appropriate before touching upon spoilerrific considerations. As the sixth entry in the Merchant Princes series, and the fourth-and-final volume of the current story arc, The Trade of Queens is pretty much all payoff for the various subplots launched in the series so far: It begins with the nuclear destruction of a large portion of downtown Washington, and then moves on to bigger things as the US government, motivated by the political calculations of a surprisingly influential figure, moves to definitely retaliate against the Gruinmarkt.
As an arc-closing volume, it ties together a number of threads while leaving readers begging for a follow-up a few years down the line. The most immediate problems are resolved (sometimes less-than-favourably), even though larger issues still have a lot of potential for exploration. There’s an offhand description of a few new parallel worlds that packs a lot of ominous ideas in a few sentences, but those new universes will have to wait until another volume for exploration, as The Trade of Queens seems justifiably preoccupied with taking care of what’s happening in the known ones. The techno-thriller tone of the series grows even stronger this time around, as it tackles political fiction and a strong critique of US foreign policy during the past decade. As a nod to savvier Nobel-winning fans of the series, its thematic underpinning (the “development trap”, or what enables some societies to advance more quickly than others given the availability of superior technology) is even explicitly stated late in the narrative.
Even though Stross has to juggle dozen of characters, a handful of parallel Earths, an apocalyptic scenario and the conclusion of a four-book cycle set in a six-book series, most of the characters of the series get a payoff of sorts. Miriam finally comes a little bit closer to the forefront as the one who best understands what’s happening and how to react: it helps that she grows more comfortable in the new identity that has been pressed upon her for the last few volumes. The conclusion is satisfying in a very dark fashion, and it does mark a reasonably comfortable stopping point for readers wondering if they can start reading the series so far.
Now that the entire cycle is available, one notes a weaker third quarter (The Revolution Business) due to overwhelming plot-juggling and a somewhat linear fourth quarter that inexorably leads to its concluding passages. Still, the overall success of the series is undeniable: I found it impossible to let go and finished most volumes of the series on the same day I began them. This is delicious high-end SF, smart and compelling.
In more spoiler-laden territory (turn around now if you don’t want to guess), I was gobsmacked at the way Stross goes about destroying the comfortable fantasy universe he could have milked for several more volumes. Or, as I thought toward the end of The Trade of Queens: Wow, I’ve never even imagined a thermonuclear carpet-bombing before. The science-fiction fan that I am can’t help but impose a gleeful reading of “fantasy worlds delentia est” over events that upset the nature of this series forever. For all of the apocalyptic nature of this fourth volume (there’s an affecting side-show description of a major nuclear exchange midway through the book), it’s satisfying in its uncompromising nature… and it helps that a good chunk of the series’ sympathetic characters don’t exactly win, but certainly live to fight another day. The scathing criticism of the Bush administration mindset is another layer of enjoyment that may not be equally appreciated by US readers, making it all the more amusing for everyone else.
While I wish the second arc of this series would have been delivered as one massive book (which may have helped with some pacing issues), The Trade of Queen is a volume that wraps things up as well as it can, while promising much for an eventual follow-up. There’s a reason why I look forward to every new Stross book, especially if they leave entire worlds destroyed in their wake.