The Merchant Princes (The Family Trade/The Hidden Family)

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Charles Stross

Published: 2004/2005

Reviewed: 2006-01-25

Publisher: Tor Books

I'd intended to review these two books separately. You may take that
as a good sign. Instead, sitting in the MITSFS one day finishing "The
Family Trade", I was so caught up that I went straight on to its
sequel, "The Hidden Family." Moreover, I held the library open for an
extra two and a half hours while I kept reading, then came in again
before work the next day to finish it. So if nothing else, that tells
you these books are good light reads.

They're also an excellent example of world-building and some pretty
good story-telling. Miriam Beckstein, citizen of bleeding-modern
Boston, discovers that she can travel to an alternate medieval-ish
universe and is a long-lost member of a whole clan of
universe-hoppers. Not all is well, of course, her arrival stirs the
pot of an ongoing war between her various vicious cousins, and the
story proceeds from there. The two books were clearly conceived as
one unit, and read together as a single coherent story --- in fact,
given the length of Mr. Stross's other books, I suspect that it's just
one of his usual stories, divided by a publisher.

I've always had a soft spot for books where a Modern American (or
whatever) is tossed into a bizarre alternate or historical world and
has to cope using their wit and native spunk. My engineer fantasies
and my first-world superiority complex are both tickled pink, and I
know I'm not alone, because dozens of these damned things get pumped
out every year and most of them are terrible (I'm looking at you,
Christopher Stasheff).

Accordingly, it was with some trepidation that I approached "The
Family Trade". Many books of this sort start out promising, but
gradually collapse under their own weight as the author figures out
the bugs in their universe and has their characters start exploiting
them. A beautiful example of this is "The Wiz Biz", by Rick Cook,
where mixing computer science principles and magic quickly goes from a
neat hook to a farcical genie that can't be stuffed back in the

Charles Stross, on the other hand, pleasantly surprised me. Miriam's
vicious family has already figured out the bugs, exploited them to
kill one another, and come up with good countermeasures. Our lovely
heroine's friends and enemies (hard to tell apart, even for the reader
--- to my delight, Mr. Stross almost never shifts viewpoint to give
the game away) have Ivy-league legal educations, fat Swiss bank
accounts, modern weapons and spy gear, and lots of hired goons in both
worlds. They use cell phones, courier messages on the Acela line
between Boston and New York, meet on the high floors of hotels where a
world-walker can't appear or escape, and build "dopplegangered"
fortresses where switching worlds leaves you facing identical walls.
In short, they're smart, the rules of the world are well-established
and don't change during the book, and I want to shake Mr. Stross's
hand for avoiding all the normal pitfalls. He even managed to get the
drop on me with a couple of surprises, which I won't give away.

The characterization in the book is the other big reason I enjoyed it.
Many of the characters started off feeling like shallow stereotypes,
only to bloom in front of my eyes as Miriam spends more time around
them and starts getting her own head straight. There's some masterful
use of third person limited perspective, where the character of what
the reader sees through Miriam's eyes changes in subtle ways as she
gets over her culture shock and starts coping with the world she has
been thrust into.

In the final summary, I'd say there's nothing really new or
ground-breaking about these books. They're a refreshing example
breathing life into an over-worn and usually butchered subgenre, with
excellent writing craft and nothing particularly challenging about the
story they tell. It's a feel-good from top to bottom, if you're an
engineer like me, and as long as you're comfortable with stories where
morality isn't black and white, I think you'll like these books.