Ryan casts a critical eye over a reissue of the sci-fi legend’s earlier work.
The Bloodline Feud isn’t a ‘new’ new book from the unstoppable Mr. Stross, but I’d be a bit surprised if you’ve read it before. It was previously published in the UK as two separate books with fairly forgettable covers and titles (sorry, Charlie, but the last thing The Family Trade and The Hidden Family sound like is good sci-fi), and due to some publisher-based strife the Merchant Princes series died of starvation three books in, only surviving in the US. Well, long story short, he’s a bit more popular these days, and the series is back on track in the original 600-page installments. There are two more volumes which have just been released, The Trader’s War and The Revolution Trade, bringing us half-way in this near-Robert Jordan-length epic.
So what have we been missing? As usual with Stross, genres and tropes are happily stood on their heads. The core of the plot is that it’s possible for a single bloodline of people to move between two alternate Earth timelines. The protagonist, a well-written, nicely developed female character, is the long-lost orphan of this family, who is brought back into the fold like a dog being thrown into a room full of angry bobcats. This is a book of assassinations and politics written in blood, with betrayals and twists by the armful. The characters are all well-written and motivated, with character progression being one of Stross’ main strengths in this series. There’s a maturity (cutting both ways) to the majority of their motivations and actions, and while the temptation to turn this into a sprawling, character-heavy jargon-filled tangle must have been strong, there is not a single under-used voice. The action and fast narrative keep the underlying economics-based plot bouyed up, and while descriptions of eighteenth-century business start-ups and discussions of universe-jumping revenue streams might not be your usual thing, Stross moves it along at such a pace, throwing in so much intrigue and unexpected humour, that you’ll be hooked long before the end.
Flaws are few and far between, one of the most notable being the point when the reader is dragged out of the story by the unedited catch-up text from what would have been the start of book two, but if you’re looking for something genuinely different that’s long-form and not excessively demanding then the Merchant Princes series will be worth picking up. One warning: if George R.R. Martin’s writing schedule is doing bad things to your blood pressure, just know that Stross is taking a few years off to write other things before he starts on the second half of the series, so you might want to read these three slowly….