After being very disappointed with The Family Trade I swore off ever reading another book by Charles Stross. The book was simply bad with poor writing, cliche, and poor description. Yet, the more I read about the author and the book the more I saw that his work is well regarded and acclaimed. I couldn't figure it out. Sure, The Family Trade was not challenging to read and had a good idea behind it, but Stross turned me off in the first ten pages of the book when his protagonist dove into her closet and ripped open a bag with her teeth. The rest of the book did not get worse, but nothing changed my initial impression of the book or the author...from this one book he seemed to be a rank amateur who got a chance to publish his book and not the award winning science fiction author he is. But as the positive reviews kept piling up I was getting curious about The Hidden Family. See, The Hidden Family is actually the second half of a book that was originally called The Merchant Princes. The book began with The Family Trade and was split by the publisher. Supposedly the story was much stronger when taken as a whole. I was curious where Stross would take the story and decided to give Charles Stross one final chance with the full expectation that I would be thoroughly disgusted.
In the first volume Miriam discovered that she was parting of the ruling elite of a Clan of Six Families...but this Clan is not part of the world in which she lived. She lived in our modern day Earth as a technology journalist. When she is about to break a huge story with a scandal she finds herself hunted by men who want to kill her. The threat is far greater than she imagined and her history is not what she expected. She is given a shoe box by her adopted mother which contains a locket belonging to her real mother (now deceased). The locket transported her to an alternate world which has not risen above the medieval ages in terms of technology and lifestyle. It is in this world that she has a family, a powerful family...some of whom wish harm upon her. Throughout the novel she tries to learn what is truth and tries to keep herself alive. In the end she learns about a hidden sixth family and a locket which may lead to a third world.
This catches up to The Hidden Family and does not quite cover the novel but is as good as can be done in a short paragraph. In this book Miriam explores the third world and tries to set up a business so she can strengthen the Clan and her position, legitimize the business of the Clan, and stop the attempts on her life. This is actually far more interesting than one might think. Stross is able to make each of the three worlds feel very different and very real. There is a true sense of discovery in The Hidden Family as we learn the nature of this third world and several other surprises about the "hidden family" and also her own family.
With how disappointed I was with The Family Trade, I expected to loathe The Hidden Family. I didn't. I didn't "love" the book, but I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and Stross has written an interesting fast paced novel. There is still an awkward line or three, such as characters talking about almost getting "rubbed out" rather than almost being "killed", but nothing is nearly as distracting as the first novel. Stross has somehow made setting up a business an interesting plot point and that he is able to do so in a book that was written as part of the same larger novel which contained the dreadful The Family Trade is remarkable. I don't understand how the first half of the book (FT) could be so bad and the second half (HF) be decent enough that I will read the third volume. I don't know if I would have enjoyed a full 600 page Merchant Princes because I think the first half would have tainted the second half, but given a year or two break in between reading the volumes I was able to enjoy The Hidden Family. It is quite possible that Stross is an ideas man who isn't able to execute as well as he can think up interesting story ideas, but it will take a read or two of his science fiction to know for sure.