The Revolution Business: Book Five of the Merchant Princes
by Charles Stross
Edited by David G. Hartwell
Review by Tom Easton
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765316721
Date: 14 April 2009 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Charles Stross's The Revolution Business--fifth volume in the Merchant Princes series that began with The Family Trade (2005)--ends far too soon. As is Stross's pattern, there's a long build-up, with great events and enormous kerfuffles thoroughly foreshadowed, and then, just as something enormous is about to happen, it stops. Tune in next week, folks, after your heart has stopped racing.
It all began when ace investigative reporter Miriam Beckwith discovered that she was the heiress to a clan of folks with the unique ability to step between one world (ours) and another (the medievaloid Gruinmarkt). This clan has grown wealthy by running drugs around borders in our world and providing rapid communications in the other. Miriam is a woman of modern Western culture. She is tough-minded, independent, and competent, and when she sees an opportunity to revamp an economically unstable enterprise (drug-running collapses if anyone wises up enough to put drugs on a legal prescription basis) by importing modern inventions (such as brake pads) into a third world, she grabs it. But the Clan is very hierarchical, part of a traditional culture where women just aren't independent beings. She must be brought to heel, married off, and set to making Clan babies. She was working around all that when the Clan turned out to have factions, both overt and covert. Not only that, but the non-Clan nobility of the Gruinmarkt had its own politics. Miriam discovered a scheme to enlarge the Clan with the help of a fertility clinic and was clapped in solitary (and visited by a Clan doctor) until she could be betrothed to the idiot prince who was the heir to the throne. The betrothal ceremony was well under way when the prince's brother Egon, known as the Pervert, staged a murderous coup.
Meanwhile, Matthias, a highly placed aide who had been conniving with an estranged branch of the Clan, decamped to our world, planted a stolen suitcase nuke in Boston, and started talking to DEA cops, who promptly started raiding Clan depots and catching drug-runners. Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, NSA, et al., promptly jumped in and mounted a raid on the Gruinmarkt (using captive world-walkers as porters) just in time to be on hand for the coup. They also mounted a new Manhattan Project to figure out how world-walking works and turn it into a technology. Just think how it could be used--you could plant bombs in enemy capitals, siphon oil out of the ground of worlds that weren't using it, and much, much more.
Meanwhile #2, the Clan is setting one of its bright young men (from MIT, yet) to investigating the knotwork design that world-walkers must focus on to do their magic. Different designs lead to different worlds, and the Clan now wants to know if there is a system to the design and its variations. Before long, bright-boy discovers a world in the grip of an ice age with old ruins that speak of technology more advanced than our own.
Meanwhile #3, the US, spurred on by a vice-president who sounds a whole lot like one we just replaced and turns out to have been in cahoots with the Clan for years to keep drug prices up, is using its nascent world-walking tech to drop a nuke on a Gruinmarkt castle. That solves one problem for the Clan, but it also pisses them off like you would not believe. These are folks who believe in blood feuds, they have a few more stolen nukes, and now they want to use them.
Meanwhile #4, Miriam, pregnant with the heir to the Gruinmarkt throne and therefore Queen, is desperately trying to figure a way out of the obvious jam. The MIT bright-boy is finding loads of alternate knot patterns, and therefore worlds, so at least there is hope that the Clan can cut and run. But given US attitudes and technology, that can be no more than a temporary solution. Something much, much better is needed. The question is whether the tangled knots of factions, plots, and conspiracies will permit it to happen.
Meanwhile #5, the world to which Miriam was introducing brake pads is now in the throes of an American Revolution that smacks of Karl Marx's influence (the movement is known as the Levellers, and it's strong on Workers' Committees). A friend of hers is high in the apparat, so there is a hint of something to come. Will the Clan come flooding in as a horde of aristocratic refugees? Will Miriam call on that friend to help? Will the aristocrats come to blows with the thoroughly anti-aristocrat Levellers? Will American gunships follow them?
The book ends with the dawn of something that sounds a whole lot like Judgment Day. Yet that Day seems at least one volume off, and probably more. During those volumes, one question that must focus Stross's efforts is, in the words of the song, "Where will they run to? Where are they going to hide?"
I'm looking forward to finding out.