The Merchant Princes

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Cover art to The Family Trade, the first novel of the series.

The Merchant Princes is a science fantasy and alternate history series by British writer Charles Stross. There are currently seven novels in the series, with another two forthcoming. In the series, there exists a number of parallel worlds all of which are on the same geographical Earth, but with different societies at different points of development. Members of a certain bloodline can travel between these worlds along with their immediate possessions. The series largely follows Miriam Beckstein, a technology journalist raised in a familiar "normal" Earth, who discovers she was born in a parallel world and is a member of this bloodline. She quickly becomes entangled in political maneuvering and assassination plots with her estranged family. Miriam uses modern technology and investigative journalism to attempt to stay a step ahead.

The implications of this world-traveling ability are thoroughly explored by the series. The ability to take clothing and held items across allows a phenomenally lucrative import/export trade between worlds; wielders of this power have used it to become wealthy. Invaluable modern technology and medicine can be shipped to the feudal world; illegal drugs can be shipped in a world where the DEA has no power; and packages or messages that would take months to deliver by horseback can simply be FedEx'd in the modern world. More alarmingly, this power has implications for security and crime as well, since it is now possible to commit a crime then disappear into thin air, and difficult to lock someone up in any effective manner. It also means there is immense social pressure on members of the genetic bloodline to breed with other compatible members to increase the likelihood of the ability manifesting, a side-effect that many fantasy and sci-fi series with special bloodlines often do not consider.

The first three novels of the series collectively won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2006.[1] The books were later re-released in 2014 as A Merchant Princes Omnibus, a trilogy of three books with each book a combination of two of the original novels: The Bloodline Feud (books 1 & 2), The Traders War (books 3 & 4), and The Revolution Trade (books 5 & 6).[2] The re-release also included a considerable amount of editing and rewriting by Stross, although no major plot changes.

Development and themes[edit]

According to Stross, in 2001, he had already sold two books to the publisher Ace Books, Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise. Ace also had the right of first refusal to any future sci-fi books Stross would publish, and would likely only publish one book of his a year so as not to have his books compete against themselves.[3] His agent advised him that if he wished to sell more books without breach of contract and also to avoid self-cannabalization, he should branch out genres, and encouraged Stross to try his hand at a fantasy series. Stross was hesitant, but gave it a shot. He wanted to be original but not "too original" and create something hard to market. He decided his series would be his own spin on both the works of Roger Zelazny's The Chronicles of Amber, which featured a hero with special world-travelling powers, as well as the "Paratime" works of H. Beam Piper, which features an organization with the power to basically raid and exploit multiple alternate histories. The main world to be visited would also be a feudal one more out of the Renaissance, as per many other fantasy stories.[3] Still, being more of a sci-fi author by nature, Stross chose to intentionally limit the scope of "magical" powers to solely the world-travelling. Stross was able to sell his new fantasy series to Tor Books, and would later adjust his contract with Ace to specifically exclude The Merchant Princes. This allowed Stross to explain the magic in the series with background sci-fi without worrying about breach of contract, but also satisfying his desire for a consistent explanation of what was "really" going on behind the scenes.[3]

One of the themes that Stross wanted to explicitly explore in the series was that of the development trap, or more generally developmental economics, the issues involved in helping poor and stratified societies to rapidly "catch up." Economist Paul Krugman wrote on the series that Stross noticed that "the fantasy thought experiment, in which someone brings modern science and technology to a backward society, isn't a fantasy. It is, instead, something that's been tried all across the very real Third World," to mixed success at best. While some countries such as South Korea became rich powerhouses, others such as Thailand have only modernized somewhat, and some states like Somalia remain desperately poor, just with access to cell phones and guns. The case of the Gulf oil states such as Saudi Arabia remain a special case, with a fabulously privileged upper class able to be educated abroad and get cutting-edge medical care and the like, but not expanding the economy of their societies beyond the treasure trove that is their wealth from natural resources - which is compared with the Clan's treasure trove from interdimensional trade. Krugman qualified his praise of the economics with a proviso that the books "are, first and foremost, great fun" with a "rollicking plot," and not a bland essay about the implications of such trade.[4]

The Family Trade[edit]

The Family Trade
Author Charles Stross
Cover artist Paul Youll
Country United States
Language English
Series The Merchant Princes
Genre Alternate history, Science Fantasy
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
December 2004
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 303 pp
ISBN 0-7653-0929-7
OCLC 55044730
813/.6 22
LC Class PR6119.T79 F36 2004
Followed by The Hidden Family

The Family Trade is the first book of The Merchant Princes, published in 2004. It introduces the reader to technology journalist Miriam Beckstein, who finds herself in a parallel world in which her extended family holds power.

Miriam's adoptive mother Iris gives her a shoebox filled with items that belonged to Miriam's birth mother, a Jane Doe who died mysteriously when Miriam was only a baby. Among other items, Miriam finds a locket. Inside is a design not unlike a Celtic knot, and when she focuses on it, she is transported to a parallel world of a feudal Massachusetts whose technology is mostly in the Dark Ages—except for the men on horses armed with guns, and an upper class that has access to "imported" baubles from Miriam's normal Earth.

Miriam quickly finds herself caught up in the feuds of her estranged family, which calls itself the Clan. The Clan has used the genetic ability to travel back and forth between the two worlds to build a lucrative import/export trade, and enrich themselves. However, their founder and progeny were from the feudal world, and thus their mores and beliefs are as well; they are content to merely enrich themselves, and seek to ingratiate themselves to the local nobility, rather than to help the commonfolk. The easy money from their power also complicates reform. Miriam compares them to Saudi princes who visit the United States & Europe, but think in an entirely different way. The Clan's most profitable transport is currently drugs, which bothers Miriam both for ethical reasons, and in her belief that the Clan could do far better. She decides to attempt to reform the business from within, while dodging the various assassination plots hatched against her. She also understands that the drug trade will only last so long; anonymity and carrying large amounts of raw cash are growing steadily more suspicious.

Miriam finds a number of potential allies in her travels. They include Paulie, a research assistant from her former job with some experience in the field of law; Roland, a distant relation, economist, and potential love interest who would also like to be free of the Clan's machinations and prefers the United States to the feudal Gruinmarkt; Duke Angbard Lofstrom, Miriam's uncle and head of security for the Clan, as well as leader of its Boston operations; Olga, a young and flighty noble who helps explain to Miriam the politics and notables of Gruinmarkt; and Briliana & Kara, two lesser noble ladies-in-waiting assigned to Miriam's service in Gruinmarkt's capital of Niejwein.

Reviews of the book often note its rather abrupt ending.[3] This is because both it and The Hidden Family were originally written as one novel, but that novel was then split for brevity's sake, as 600 pages was too long.[2] The Family Trade placed fifth in the annual Locus Poll for best fantasy novel.[5] The Family Trade and The Hidden Family were later released together as The Bloodline Feud, with some editing & adjustments.[2]

The Hidden Family[edit]

The Hidden Family
Author Charles Stross
Cover artist Paul Youll
Country United States
Language English
Series The Merchant Princes
Genre Alternate history, Science fantasy novel
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
June 2005
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 303 pp
ISBN 0-7653-1347-2
OCLC 57286043
813/.6 22
LC Class PR6119.T79 H53 2005
Preceded by The Family Trade
Followed by The Clan Corporate

The Hidden Family is the second book of The Merchant Princes, published in 2005. It completes the story began in The Family Trade of Miriam Beckstein's attempts to understand and explore the new worlds she has access to. As the title suggests, the existence of families with the power to "worldwalk" unknown to the Clan comes of importance in this book, as a shadow war to undermine the Clan continues. The story also includes Miriam's exploration of a third world largely unknown to the Clan, where Massachusetts is part of "New Britain" and the British monarchy fled to America; this nation has roughly Victorian mores and 1930s technology. The existence of this third world also complicates security expectations, as it provides an angle to attack the Clan from locations which might seem safely guarded in both worlds, but are unguarded in the third world.

In The Hidden Family, Miriam correctly hypothesizes that the Clan civil war that took place around the time she was born was caused and intensified by a third party - a distant branch of the Clan that, while weaker, was unknown and had access to a different world. They were thus able to perform attacks that seemed as if they must come from a rival world-walker within the Clan, but actually came from the Hidden Family. Miriam also believes this third party to be behind the attack on her birth mother. For reasons she can't entirely understand, this branch family considers her existence a threat as well. Miriam also has to contend with elements in the Clan who distrust her. She is warned that in 6 months, a large Clan meeting will occur at Beltaigne, and her rivals - including her own blood grandmother - are likely to motion to have her declared incompetent, which would deny her the funds held in trust that was her inheritance. Lastly, Miriam believes that Duke Lofstram's security forces have a mole working for the Hidden Family, after several security lapses and attempts on her life that seemed to know too much.

Both to research the hidden family, as well as to build her own personal base of power separate from the alternative of marrying a Clan noble and throwing herself under his faction's protection, most of the book concerns Miriam's efforts in New Britain. Miriam gained access to it via taking a New Britain locket off one of the hidden assassins who attacked her at the end of The Family Trade. There, she ships gold - tightly regulated under mercantilist beliefs that the government requires a large supply of bullion - and allies with the Levellers, dissidents from the Royal government who demand something like the rights secured in the American Revolution in Miriam's world. Erasmus Burgeson, a Leveller quartermaster and pawnshop owner, helps set Miriam up with false identity papers, and Miriam moves on to her next money-making plan. After shipping gold to get some initial funds, she will instead ship ideas. She buys a business and begins to take old patents from the 1900s-1950s unfamiliar to New Britain there, and sell rights to the ideas.

Publishers Weekly in their review said "Stross continues to mix high and low tech in amusing and surprising ways. However, while giving a gritty SF portrait of the marvels of modern market economics and correcting the too pretty portrait of too many medieval fantasy lands, he sometimes overlooks the realities that constrain both. Still, less historically minded readers can lose themselves in Miriam's attempts to survive the Clan's equally dangerous high-stakes business and social games. Stross weaves a tale worthy of Robert Ludlum or Dan Brown."[6] Roland Green reviewing the book for Booklist compared it to the early novels in Roger Zelazny's Amber series.[7] The Hidden Family was a finalist for the 2006 Prometheus Award.[8]

The Clan Corporate[edit]

The Clan Corporate
Author Charles Stross
Cover artist Paul Youll
Country United States
Language English
Series The Merchant Princes
Genre Alternate history, Science fantasy
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
May 16, 2006
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 320 pp
ISBN 0-7653-0930-0
OCLC 62393136
813/.6 22
LC Class PR6119.T79 C63 2006
Preceded by The Hidden Family
Followed by The Merchants' War

The Clan Corporate is the third book of The Merchant Princes, published in 2006. It is the first part of the series' second story.

In this installment, Miriam Beckstein spends most of her time in the first parallel world, a virtual prisoner. She has ruffled enough feathers and stirred up enough trouble that her uncle, the clan's head of security, keeps her well isolated, and unable to travel unchaperoned. At one point in the story, she manages to escape surveillance for a short time, but she quickly gets herself back in trouble, and her activities are strongly circumscribed thereafter.

There's a subplot involving Mike Fleming, a cop who dated Miriam a couple of times. Mike has been pulled into a government task force that is investigating the clan's activities and plans with the help of a member of the clan's security apparatus who turned his back on the clan at the end of book two. There are also occasional references to the moral and security implications of holding him prisoner outside the criminal justice system.

Reviews noted that The Clan Corporate suffers from a similar problem as the first book, but worse; it is clearly the first part of a two-part story. Unlike The Family Trade, which at least ends on something of an exciting cliffhanger with Miriam dodging multiple assassination attempts, The Clan Corporate ends with its plot threads still hanging.

The Merchants' War[edit]

The Merchants' War
Author Charles Stross
Cover artist Paul Youll
Country United States
Language English
Series The Merchant Princes
Genre Alternate history, Science fantasy
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
October 16, 2007
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 336 pp
ISBN 978-0-7653-1671-4
OCLC 124036350
823/.92 22
LC Class PR6119.T79 M47 2007
Preceded by The Clan Corporate
Followed by The Revolution Business

The Merchant's War is the fourth book of The Merchant Princes, published in 2007.

The Revolution Business[edit]

The Revolution Business
Author Charles Stross
Country United States
Language English
Series The Merchant Princes
Genre Alternate history, Science Fiction
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
April 15, 2009
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN 0-7653-1672-2
OCLC 243544986
823/.92 22
LC Class PR6119.T79 R48 2009
Preceded by The Merchants' War
Followed by The Trade of Queens

The Revolution Business is the fifth book of The Merchant Princes, published in 2009.

The Trade of Queens[edit]

The Trade of Queens
Author Charles Stross
Country United States
Language English
Series The Merchant Princes
Genre Alternate history, Science Fiction
Publisher Tor Books
Publication date
March 16, 2010
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
ISBN 978-0765355911
Preceded by The Revolution Business
Followed by Empire Games

The Trade of Queens is the sixth book in The Merchant Princes, published in 2010.

Empire Games[edit]

Empire Games is the seventh book in the series, published in January 2017.[9] It is the start of a new trilogy in the series.

Forthcoming[edit]

According to Stross, two more novels are forthcoming in the series: Dark State and Invisible Sun.[10]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Past Winners and Finalists, Sidewise Award for Alternate History
  2. ^ a b c CHARLES STROSS INTRODUCES: THE BLOODLINE TRADE
  3. ^ a b c d Stross, Charles. Post mortem.
  4. ^ Krugman, Paul. Stross on development economics
  5. ^ Locus Index to SF Awards
  6. ^ "THE HIDDEN FAMILY: Book Two of Merchant Princes". Publishers Weekly. 252 (17): 43. April 25, 2005. ISSN 0000-0019. 
  7. ^ Green, Roland (June 1, 2005). "The Hidden Family". Booklist. 101 (19/20): 1769. ISSN 0006-7385. 
  8. ^ "Libertarian Futurist Society". Archived from the original on 2008-11-04. Retrieved 2008-11-04. 
  9. ^ Page at Internal Speculative Fiction DB
  10. ^ Stross, Charles (18 April 2016). "Fiction by Charles Stross". Charlie's Diary. Retrieved 29 September 2016. 

External links[edit]