Monday, 1 April 2013

The Merchant Princes Series Are Good Books

Or why you should read The Family Trade, The Hidden Family, The Clan Corporate, The Merchants War, The Revolution Business, and The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross.

I have a fraught relationship with Fantasy. When I was younger I went through a phase where I devoured the genre: no book was too pulpy, goofy, or saccarine for my youthful palate. The result is that I gorged myself on a lot of, frankly, terrible books. And now I'm very wary of any Fantasy novel I encounter.

So it was with conflicted emotions that I learned that Charles Stross, a favourite author, wrote a six novel series of fantasy novels. I mean, I love Charles Stross' Science Fiction novels. They are exciting and interesting stories built around brilliant high concepts and absolutely packed with neat little ideas about the future, Science, or economics (which are all things that tickle me). And it's all executed with a kind of mad, nerdy glee that is, at the end of the day, fun. It's exactly the kind of smart and enjoyable reading experience I want from fiction. All of that said... I kind of planned on giving The Merchant Princes series a pass because they are Fantasy.

Except it was announced that three of Charles Stross' upcoming novels will be sequels to the existing six Merchant Princes novels.

This pretty much means I've got to read these books despite my misgivings. A trilogy is a pretty solid investment of time for a prose author, and I'm just not willing to go cold turkey on a new Stross novel for that long. Of course, I'm buoyed by the fact that Stross is an excellent writer and that he once decided that his Eschaton Sci-fi setting was irrevocably broken and abandoned it. And if he is unwilling to invest his time in what I still think is a perfectly serviceable Space Opera series, then it gives me confidence that The Merchant Princes books are worth checking out.

So I gave them a go.

In a broad sense The Merchant Princes novels follow a pretty traditional Fantasy trope. In them, Miriam Beckstein, a freshly unemployed tech journalist discovers she is secretly the noble heiress from a secret kingdom on another world after she meets her long lost relatives.  In The Merchant Princes there exist parallel worlds with divergent histories. Miriam's adopted home, a modern day America, exists in parallel proximity with Miriam's secret family home, a North America settled by feudal Nordic/Germanic settlers still living in a dark age. Miriam and her long lost family possess the hereditary ability to travel between worlds and have used this ability to become extremely wealthy merchants in the medieval version of America by taking advantage of modern America's infrastructure. Furthermore, with their amassed fortune and access to modern technology and weaponry Miriam's family have become very powerful in their native land. And now they want Miriam to come home with them and take up the life of a wealthy duchess she was always meant to have.

So at first blush, exactly the kind of Fantasy that I would rather avoid.

But here is the brilliance of The Merchant Princes: they attack this sugary and stale premise with the grim, grinding reality of the situation. Stross mercilessly points out what it would mean to be suddenly dragged into a medieval society ruled by feudal politics. Instead of being a wonderful adventure, these novels portray what it is like for a modern woman to be transported to a time where marriages are an arranged political institution, having children is an expected way to consolidate power, and where the toilet is a pot or a hole in the wall. Not to mention a whole slough of other things too spoilery to mention. Add to that a really thorough exploration of how the politics and economics of world walking would work in a really smart and wankery way that, I think, really fleshes out the premise. Basically, The Merchant Princes is an intensely thoughtful, unabashedly cynical and mature take on a really silly Fantasy staple. Which is kind of awesome.

(Or more put more succinctly The Merchant Princes are like what if Narnia was a real place that was shit.)

The Merchant Princes is also pretty interesting from a feminist perspective. It sets out a pretty strident look at the genuinely shitty way women were treated historically. To a certain extent this functions as a lesson for how far they have come in our modern age, but also, maybe, how far they have yet to go and what they stand to lose if they don't defend their rights. But beyond that, The Merchant Princes make some really clever use of our preconceptions about women that makes for some neat twists in the story but also functions to highlight some of the dismissive and shitty attitudes we have internalized.  The novels, then, hold up a mirror to our own, modern prejudices. Which is uncomfortable but pretty great.

So overall I'd say these books are pretty good, have considerable merit, and are not the schlocky Fantasy that I worried they might be.

That isn't to say they are without problems. I'd say the biggest issue with the Merchant Princes is bloat. There are a lot of separate storylines that get introduced, juggled, and at times neglected throughout the series. I mean, all of these story threads eventually come together and reach a reasonably satisfying conclusion (and the main storyline ends fabulously), but it is a lot to keep track of. And of course, these books are information dense which, while it makes the series interesting and is fundamental to my enjoyment of them, also taxes the readers ability to keep everything straight. (This is exacerbated a bit by the fact that some details clearly change, or alter over the course from the first to last novel.) I read all of these books sequentially over a month or so, so I was able to keep fairly abreast of all the goings on, but I could see someone who reads less in a week or doesn't read the series all at once getting hopelessly lost.

So at the end of the day I, somewhat surprisingly, really enjoyed The Merchant Princes. They are refreshing and clever, brutal and fun, and very, very smart. While I'm not sure I can recommend them to everyone, I feel like if you like Stross' Sci-Fi fiction you will enjoy these novels and if you like information dense stories with thrilling plots you ought to have fun with The Merchant Princes too. If you aren't sure about Stross or dense fiction, then I would give his classic novel Accelerando a try; it's great and best of all it can be downloaded legally for free in a variety of formats.

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