Friday, July 01, 2005

The Family Trade

“The Family Trade” is the first volume in a new series by Charles Stross called “The Merchant Princes.” I would assume this series is going to be a trilogy, but I could not find this stated. In theory, the type of world Stross created would allow for as many volumes as the author can think up stories. There will definitely be a sequel, “The Hidden Family”, and the structure of this first book is such that it feels like the beginning of a trilogy.

Miriam Beckstein is an investigative reporter for a technology magazine in Boston. When Paulette, a co-worker and researcher at the magazine brings Miriam an exhaustive stack of research on a story Miriam is working on, what they discover is strong evidence of corruption and money laundering. Bringing it to her editor, Miriam is promptly fired and soon receives death threats. Paulette, for being involved is also fired. The cause has nothing to do with the offense except that the company that owns the building the magazine works in (and possibly the magazine) may be implicated. Miriam goes to her adoptive mother to tell her about being fired and her mother says it is time Miriam knew a little bit more of how she ended up in the care of the family she did. She also gives Miriam a shoe box containing some of her true mother’s belongings.

When Miriam gets home she opens the box and discovers a locket. The locket has a strange pattern and when she focuses on the pattern she finds herself in the middle of a forest with no sign of civilization except for a horseman riding towards her holding a machine gun. She focuses back on the locket and returns home. This is the true beginning to the story. As an investigative reporter, Miriam needs to figure this out, to find out what happened or if she is simply going crazy. While going crazy might work for a short story, it would be a pretty poor opening for a fantasy novel if the fantasy world isn’t real. It is, of course, and she begins to investigate what this medieval styled world is like and what is all about. She soon learns that she is part of the aristocracy there, but that things are darker and more dangerous than what she expected.

As a long time fantasy reader I think the idea behind this book is fascinating. I want to know how these worlds are connected, why, who and how this was discovered. I want to see further interaction between the worlds as Miriam discovers how this works and what her place is in either world. I even want to know what happens in the next book. I just want someone else to write it.

See, “The Family Trade” is a very interesting concept and Miriam Beckstein is a smart woman who behaves in a much more realistic way than most fantasy characters who get plopped into a strange new world. Most behave as if they know everything or as if they can know nothing. Miriam seems to learn and it makes sense how she figures things out, even if there may be jumps in logic which don’t work for me but might work for a reporter. The problem is the writing, especially early on, is just cheap and weak. Here’s an example of page four of the paperback and where I almost gave up:

“Back upstairs, fortified by an unfeasibly large mug of coffee, she had to work out what to wear. She dived into her closet and found herself using her teeth to tear the plastic bag off one of the three suits she’d had dry cleaned on Friday --only to discover it was her black formal interview affair, not at all the right thing for a rainy Monday pounding the street--or at least doing telephone interviews from a cubicle in the office”

Bear in mind this is just after Miriam fled downstairs and switched on the coffee percolator. The beginning of the book was all like this and while it did get somewhat better, this was still the same tone that was used throughout the book and it simply downgraded what is, at heart, an interesting story.

In the hands of another author I am sure I would have loved this book and would be excited to read the second volume. As it stands, I didn’t and I’m not. I am interested enough in the core story that I’m actually considering it, but I can only hope that the writing style improves somewhat.

The bottom line is that as a first book in a series, this is not a complete story. The pace is fast enough that this is a book that will be finished fairly quickly and the idea is interesting enough that I still do want to know what happens next. The way Stross phrases sentences, ideas, and paragraphs just leaves a little to be desired.

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