The Merchant Princes series – Charles Stross

I’m  a bit behind with my reviews – I read this series a few months ago, and for whatever reason never found the necessary tuits to talk about them, despite them being the work of one of my favourite authors.

First, a bit of background – these are revised versions of books which didn’t get much of a release in the UK, but were sold in the US in six volumes. I’d noticed one of them, but didn’t take much notice thanks to (a) a cover design which made it look like the kind of fantasy that doesn’t interest me at all[1] and (b) me not being sensible enough to realise that the chances of Charlie Stross writing that kind of fantasy are minimal. Anyway, Charlie revised the books, and reassembled them into three volumes which are all now available. He’s working on a second series, which will start appearing in a year or two (depending on this and that).

What’s it all about? Well, that’s complicated. It starts when journalist Miriam Beckstein is fired form her job after discovering a massive money laundering plot. Her adoptive mother gives her some mementos of her real mother, including a locket. Looking at the intricate design in the locket transports Miriam to a parallel world, where things are a wee bit different. It’s a more or less feudal society, with minimal technology. Well, apart from the weapons and such imported from Miriam’s world by a group of families who share Miriam’s ability to walk between worlds. As is traditional, it turns out that Miriam and her mother originated from this feudal world, and are in fact actual aristocracy.

So far, so conventional. But Charlie’s playing a different game. You see the Clan (as the world walking people are known) are getting absurdly rich from their talent. They offer high speed courier services in their world – making deliveries across the North American continent at a speed quite impossible where roads are rudimentary and horses are your fastest transport option. All they have to do is carry the goods from one world to the next, then use planes or cars to carry them to the local equivalent of the destination, then walk back to their world. And in Miriam’s world, they’re major drug traffickers – growing the source plants in their world…

There are conspiracies and betrayals, assassination attempts, and much worse.

But it really starts to get interesting when a defector from the Clan hands himself over to the US authorities. And once the US gets to know about what’s been lurking in its midst, Bad Things start to happen. Really, really Bad Things, which I won’t describe, as I’m trying not to spoil things for anyone who hasn’t read the books yet.

A further level of interest is added when Miriam travels to yet another parallel world, which has a more or less 19th century technological level and some quite different politics.

A lot happens involving all three worlds, and by the end of the trilogy, all have been changed in quite drastic fashion.

Seriously good stuff – and like all Charlie’s books, highly recommended.

[1] He said, politely