Review – The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross

  1. The Bloodline Feud
  2. The Traders War
  3. The Revolution Business
  4. The Trade of Queens (Incomplete)

(Confusion alert – the Merchant Princes series was originally published as 6 books, but republished by combining the pairs of books into a trilogy.  Unfortunately I only had the first two reprints and the last two old versions.  The Revolution Business and the Trade of Queens have been reprinted as the Revolution Trade.)

When I read the Bloodline Feud, I thought it was a high concept masterpiece, by the time I got to the last volume of the Merchant Princes, I couldn’t finish it, and returned the first book of the new series in the same world, Empire Games, unread to the library.

The Bloodline Feud asks a question: what would you do if you discovered the ability to move between worlds, one feudal, and one modern day america?  Many books have covered the heroic options, but Stross chooses a more obvious answer – make as much money as you can.  Indeed, despite being a Stross fan, I first became aware of this series because of its endorsement by Paul Krugman.1 2
In one volume it squeezes an enormous amount out of this concept, particularly in the contrast between how a feudal world walker might use their ability to make money, versus someone with a grasp of modern economics.  By the end of the book, it is pretty clear where Stross comes down on the wealth as goods vs wealth as ideas debate.

On top of that, it starts off as being about smart people doing smart things.  Miriam, a normal girl who discovers she can walk between worlds, and is effectively a lost princess, is strong, determined, and resourceful, and makes for a very compelling character.  Usually in these types of story, the person from the present assimilates effortlessly or comedically poorly, here the culture shock is treated as real, and extremely dangerous, and is compounded by introducing another world in an intermediate state of development.

In the Traders War however, things start to go drastically wrong.  The original high concepts starts to get sidelined in favour of a Bush era parable about what would happen to a medieval kingdom with some stolen modern weapons getting into an existential conflict with a post 9/11, Cheney run USA.  Stross clearly has some axes he wants to grind, and while I sympathise, I just wish he did it somewhere else.  As soon as a scientific explanation for the world walking is presented, there is an inevitability to events that I found off-putting.

This leads to the later books’ worst sin, an increasing focus on being plot driven at the expense of character and setting.  Smart people doing smart things turns to smart people doing impulsive things and being surprised when they go wrong.  Point of view characters outside of Miriam’s friends are added whose sole purpose is to explain what is happening, and recorded conversations are dumped into the narrative to achieve the same.  This makes reading the books a slog, as you are constantly losing sight of the half dozen characters you actually care about.  In the end, I just wikied what happened to them, and felt better for it.

 

In summary, the Bloodline Feud is the masterpiece, and largely stands alone.  The rest of the series is an exercise in decreasing returns, that I would avoid.

 

  1. Bank of Sweden Prize.
  2. (just kidding) Nobel Prize winner in Economics.

Leave a Reply