The Merchants' War: Book Four of the Merchant Princes
by Charles Stross
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765316714
Date: 16 October 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Charles Stross' The Merchants' War is the fourth book in a continuing series, The Merchant Princes that might just as easily been named the Perils of Miriam Worldwalker. In the first book, Miriam Beckstein discovered that people in her family had the ability to travel to a parallel world by looking at a specific pattern. Her family, the medieval version of the mafia, has grown rich and powerful in both worlds, largely by using this worldwalking power to smuggle drugs into the modern world and modern weapons into the medieval one. But people keep trying to kill her, force her into marriage, or otherwise ensnare her in their plots.
By the time the fourth book opens, Miriam, a hereditary Countess in the medieval world has discovered that a long-lost branch of their family had a slightly distorted pattern which took them to an America with 19th century level technology, she set up a business there which the clan took over. In an attempt to get leverage on the leaders of the clan, Miriam used her instincts as an investigative reporter to uncover a scheme to take over a fertility clinic to breed more worldwalkers. However, she is caught while investigating and put under house arrest. Meanwhile, a military-intelligence operation, that includes Miriam's ex-boyfriend, had learned of the drug smuggling and determined that the clan represents a threat to the U.S., especially when a defector says the clan has a nuclear bomb on a one-year timer. They have captured a few Clan members and are forcing them to transport spies into the medieval world.
The Merchants' War is somewhat less frantic than the previous volumes as most of it is devoted to the fallout from the climax of the last book. Miriam has escaped to the third world where she becomes more entangled in a plot by pro-democratic terrorists. The new king of the medieval world, branding the clan tinkers and witches, declares extensive war, using a mix of medieval and modern weapons. A team of young family members begin experimenting with ways to alter the pattern to travel to other worlds. And, in our world, the government team is trying to find the bomb while Mike, Miriam's boyfriend, becomes the go-between for the progressive movement in the clan with the U.S. government. With all this going on, the focus on Miriam, is much reduced (but after everything that went on in the first three books, she needs a rest.)
These books show that the line between science fiction and fantasy is occasionally more blurry than casual readers would suspect. While these books are marketed as fantasy and the first parallel world was a medieval setting so common to fantasy, there is no magic except for some characters' ability to worldwalk. And from the first book, this has been shown to be genetic, obeying the laws of recessive traits. By the fourth book, the clan has discovered a high tech world, and the U.S. government has discovered a way to send cells into the alternate world using science. One could also make a case in the earlier books that these are science fiction with the science being economics, but by the third book Miriam's efforts to reform the clan's business model has largely died out.
The Merchant Princes is one long continuous story broken up into several volumes for publishing; each book picks up immediately where the previous one left off. So no one should start with The Merchants' War. Fans of alternate history and books where characters from the present wind up in the past or alternate worlds such as the Turtledove/Tarr Household Gods should already be reading this series. Fans of the Roger Zelazny Chronicles of Amber should give this a look too, as Stross has said that they provided some inspiration for this series. But if you are looking for fantasy with magic, or Stross' usual post-singularity science fiction, this is not for you. I recommend giving the first book, The Family Trade, a read and then deciding if this series is your cup of tea.