The Family Trade – Charles Stross

Too naive to survive – will the series be worth it?

Stars: Three out of five.

Review format: Review plus links.
The Family Trade – Charles Stross. Book 1 of The Merchant Princes. Summary: Miriam Beckstein is happy in her life. She’s a successful reporter for a hi-tech magazine in Boston, making good money doing what she loves. When her researcher brings her iron-clad evidence of a money-laundering scheme, Miriam thinks she’s found the story of the year. But when she takes it to her editor, she’s fired on the spot and gets a death threat from the criminals she has uncovered.
Before the day is over, she’s received a locket left by the mother she never knew-the mother who was murdered when she was an infant. Within is a knotwork pattern, which has a hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she’s transported herself to a parallel Earth, a world where knights on horseback chase their prey with automatic weapons, and where world-skipping assassins lurk just on the other side of reality – a world where her true family runs things.
The six families of the Clan rule the kingdom of Gruinmarkt from behind the scenes, a mixture of nobility and criminal conspirators whose power to walk between the worlds makes them rich in both. Braids of family loyalty and intermarriage provide a fragile guarantee of peace, but a recently-ended civil war has left the families shaken and suspicious. Taken in by her mother’s people, she becomes the star of the story of the century- as Cinderella without a fairy godmother. As her mother’s heir, Miriam is hailed as the prodigal countess Helge Thorold-Hjorth, and feted and feasted.
Caught up in schemes and plots centuries in the making, Miriam is surrounded by unlikely allies, forbidden loves, lethal contraband, and, most dangerous of all, her family. Her unexpected return will supercede the claims of other clan members to her mother’s fortune and power, and whoever killed her mother will be happy to see her dead, too. Behind all this lie deeper secrets still, which threaten everyone and everything she has ever known. Patterns of deception and interlocking lies, as intricate as the knotwork between the universes. But Miriam is no one’s pawn, and is determined to conquer her new home on her own terms.  (from the cover)
Provenance: Borrowed from the local library.

The Family Trade’s Miriam Beckstein at first struck me as a heroine too naive to survive.  Having uncovered her boss’ complicity in a multi-million-dollar money-laundring deal, Miriam is bogglingly placid.  Even the death-threat voicemail left on her answering machine doesn’t rattle her much – she ponders what freelance for her next article, and frets a little over the gap this unjust firing will leave on her resume.  No excuses: she’s not a dairymaid from a fantasy kingdom, or an eight-year-old girl: she’s supposed to be a gutsy investigative reporter.

I was starting to develop sneer-lines from an incredulous frown, when luckily Miriam decided to unleash the magical locket, travel to the parallel world, and discover her true birthright. The book summary makes this book sound a star-or-so better than I think it is.  From this point onwards in the book, Stross’ little universe clicks along happily and enjoyably.  Miriam starts to work out her place in the new world, and begins scheming how to reform it.

Speaking of scheming, the plot momentum is on the weak side.  Miriam travels hither and yon, makes some alliances and possible enemies, and … gets to the end of the book.  There’s no goal attained or enemy identified.

Overall, The Family Trade is an easy-reading book.  It’s establishing context for the rest of the Merchant Princes series, and the context sounds pretty good in summary form. I will give a try to the second book, The Hidden Family, and I hope my invested time pays off with at least a three-and-a-half stars. [update noooooooooooooooo – it’s not any better at all – disappointment – nooo]

Linkage, Comments, and Quibbles: below

Links and other reviews   (added by me, not generated)

  • Here’s my Stross bibliography, linking you to my other reviews of his books
  • Larry on Dusk Before the Dawn reviewed this back in 2009 and seems to have felt the same way I did about this: “The novel is incomplete, it ends in the middle of a story, heading directly into the second book, The Hidden Family. But Miriam is an engaging character, she doesn’t roll over when confronted by all of these challenges. And though the “how” of world-walking is never explained, the mix of economics, politics and parallel worlds makes this an enjoyable series, one I hope to read straight thru.”
  • SFReviews is more enthused: “This is the thinking-person’s adventure so many SF and fantasy fans say they wish for. Pacing is pitch-perfect and suspense is taut. It’s impossible not to admire Miriam; it would have been all too easy to make her a little too clever and resourceful for her own good, but Stross knows how to keep her (and by extension us) on her toes through the occasional misstep. (And her background as a journalist helps her know how to deal with sticky situations.)”
  • And then, Sarah on Brainfluff positively gushes: “As we are pulled into her adventures, there is a constant sense of danger as she feels herself unable to completely trust anyone in this complicated, brutal world. While the intrigue thickens and the plot gathers momentum, Stross keeps the pace and narrative driving forward to the end of this particular story – leaving me looking forward to reading the second book in the series, The Hidden Family. 10/10″


  • Again, why on earth would anyone from twenty-first-century America react to uncovering a drug-money-laundring scheme with ‘La di dah, I’ll just get a new job and the bad guys won’t bother me.”
  • Wait, why did her dead-hippie-dad convince Miriam to own and use a handgun and shotgun?  Smells like authorial intervention.  Similarly, Miriam’s sudden skill in skulking and hand-to-hand combat come off as implausible.
  • Our protagonist is female, but Stross does not 100% succeed in the view-from-a-woman. Specifically, the clothing!  Miriam talks/thinks a plausible amount about the renaissance-style finery she must be dressed in for court appearance, but … there are no visuals.  If you’re going to talk that much about clothes, Charles, you gotta at least hint what they look like.  You needn’t go all Gossip Girl with it, but a bit about cut, color, and cloth is called for!!
  • There was something oddly distant in Miriam’s relationship with her mother. She ‘protests too much’ that this is her real mother, but at first the writing had me all confused that this was some non-family person that Miriam was visiting. Like a mentor-turned-honorary-aunt, if you get me.
  • Epilogue – well BAH. WTF is Stross trying to hint about?  Is Roland betraying Miriam?  Is he playing a double game? The obliqueness of the Epilogue was coy and annoying.  There were clearly no meaningful teasers in the offing, so I basically skipped through it. I think it would have been just as well left out… or used as a preface to the next book and included in the teaser chapter.

Things I liked

  • Pretty solid conceptual framework with the world-walking.  I mean, I wasn’t thinking ‘wow, this could be real‘ but there was certainly the attention-to-detail that a good SF writer puts into a space epic.
  • Miriam is a lot more fun as a character once she goes all medieval-adventureress.  It’s in the vein of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.
  • The book’s attention to place is a strong point. The description of the unpopulated alter-New-England is vivid, and almost had me smelling it. The Boston scenes refer to real places, and had me reminiscing about Cambridge.
  • Olga, Ronald, and Brill are promising secondary characters.  Maybe they’re lacking in human depth, but they are fun.
  • I do like Miriam’s organized approach to proving that she really has travelled between worlds – camera, note-taking, searching for the translocated office chair.  That made me laugh a little.


Shall I link to your review? Let me know in a comment or contact, and I can add the link here.

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  1. #1 by Joachim Boaz on September 23, 2011 - 5:12 pm

    Stross admitted in an interview that I read a while back that he wrote these for money….

    • #2 by Sandy M. on September 23, 2011 - 5:54 pm

      ohhh, really? From that point of view, I have to applaud the craftsmanship. I was already wondering whether the female protagonist was a deliberate commercial choice, and if he was ‘in it for the cash’ that would fit.

      I’m not criticizing him as the author – I’ve got my own job that I do for money, and often it’s mostly slog rather than creativity.

  2. #3 by Joachim Boaz on September 23, 2011 - 6:34 pm

    If I remember correctly he mentioned how his agent suggested he write a fantasy-esque series for money — it’s funny considering he’s quite the famous new hip sci-fi writer at the moment.

    Hehe, his normal fare is definitely creative — not at all my cup of tea but still — for example, Singularity Sky. He’s been nominated for the Hugo multiple times but I’ve never found his prose/plotting that interesting. He’s an info dump kind of writer when he’s in his normal stomping grounds — high tech/high concept/action sci-fi.

    • #4 by Sandy M. on September 23, 2011 - 8:10 pm

      I’ve tried reading a handful of Stross books now, and it’s been more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’ for me overall. Singularity Sky didn’t work for me at all. Halting State was a little hard to get into (second person narrative?!) but eventually it was fun and came in as better than average.

  3. #5 by Joachim Boaz on September 25, 2011 - 2:57 pm

    Haha, I completely gave up on his work after Singularity Sky — loved the concepts hated the delivery.

  4. #6 by Carol on September 26, 2011 - 2:14 pm

    Doesn’t sound like one I’ll bother with. There’s just not enough time to read all the books out there, and this one isn’t really grabbing me.

    • #7 by Sandy M. on September 26, 2011 - 5:52 pm

      Ha – life’s too short to read bad books.

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