Bewildering Stories

Charles Stross, The Family Trade

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Family Trade
Author: Charles Stross
Publisher: Tor
Date: November 2004
Hardcover: ISBN: 0-765-30929-7
Length: 303 pp.
Price: about $17 US

I usually allow myself to read the back and inside cover of a new book only after I’ve finished the story. Then I can smile, sneer, nod my head, or roll my eyes at the buy-this-book come-hithers recorded thereon as they deserve.

The Family Trade has the usual on its glossy covers: names of various publications and other authors taken in vain; a few openly sycophantic quotes (we’re told — twice, in case we miss the point — that Mr. Stross is “The Next Big Thing” in science fiction), and professions of purported resemblances to other more famous works and authors. In this case, Roger Zelazny, H. Beam Piper, and Philip Jose Farmer are singled out for attention.

Not being familiar with H. Beam Piper, I can’t comment on the supposed similarity, but the other two got a shake of my head. True, The Family Trade does borrow two plot devices straight from Zelazny’s famed Amber Chronicles: there’s the fratricidal, matricidal, patricidal, and (insert whatever is the word for killing, not kissing, cousins, here) extended family with the ability to slip to alternate Earths (via a vaguely Celtic medallion pattern, this time).

But there the resemblance ends. Zelazny’s zestful, colorful-as-a-card-suite of siblings are done in grays and blacks in the Stross version. Perhaps that’s because the pursuit of ill-gotten gain, not a royal throne, is the chief interest of this particular Family. Stross’s characters don’t scheme with the same passion and sense of fun the Amber siblings applied to their own murderous maneuverings. Alas! It’s just not as much fun killing for mere filthy lucre... and in this case, it’s not as much fun for the reader, either.

In fact, the protagonist of our story, thirty-two year old investigative journalist Miriam Beckstein, starts out with one heck of a bad day. She and an unsuspecting co-worker, Paulette, who also works for the same high-tech business journal, stumble across what appears to be a humongous money-laundering scheme. But when she and Paulette take their painstaking research to the top, they find themselves flying out the door on a magic pink slip before they can draw breath to protest. Anonymous threats on the home answering machine and midnight invaders soon follow.

Miriam is furious, but soon diverted by another puzzle. Her unknown birthmother, found murdered long ago with her crying baby, little Miriam, beside her, bequeathed her a strange medallion. The medallion gives Miriam a bad headache. It also transports her to an alternate Earth: an Earth stuck, for its peasantry, in a sort of miserable Dark Ages. Its elite (Miriam’s long-lost family, of course) live in a strange blend of Scandinavian-flavored feudal and bleeding-edge modern. The technology and associated luxury, of course, is stolen from our own world. Miriam’s new family is seriously rich. They should be: they’re drug couriers, conveying mass white death via their untraceable, border-skipping, world-walking talent.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Miriam to blow the whistle to the DEA or CIA on these parasitic new relatives, not even after they abduct her and start planning her forced betrothal. Maybe their gift of a credit card with a two-million-dollar limit (just for starters) muddles Miriam’s sense of patriotism and morality. No, in short order Miriam is jousting and scheming with the worst of them, along with a newly gained lover, her cousin Roland. She wants to reform the relatives... no, we’re not talking exactly moral reform here: Miriam wants to find the Clan a New Business Model, a worthy goal that her new partner Roland has already tried and failed at. And if that isn’t enough of a task, there might just be another secret collection of relatives, unknown even to her new Clan, to worry about... and who seem to have their own murderous agenda...

Miriam’s a tough, somewhat humorless character, and this book has plenty of profanity to show us just how tough a gal she is. She soon gains a collection of loyal female conspirators. By contrast, the men in the story are mostly either shadowy and barely sketched (Miriam’s uncle Angbard, the Godfather of the Clan, for example) or distinctly diffident and weak-wristed (Miriam’s genteel and well-dressed cousin Roland).

Miriam, in fact, is more than a match for her new lover and partner Roland. When she decides to seduce him, for example, she briskly commands him to order dinner up to his suite, and when he still doesn’t seem to get the idea, (his manners are on the edge of too good), she more or less knocks him (literally) off his feet with her, um, mammaries... a rather forthright, and if I may be pardoned for an admittedly peculiar view here, a somewhat masculine way of uh, making her point(s)!

I wish the supporting characters in The Family Trade were more colorful, and I wish the author had done more with the collision of cultures (modern vs. medieval) than he manages in his story. So far, Book One of The Merchant Princes is more of a crime yarn than a science fiction (or sociological) vision. I myself won’t be spending too much time looking for the sequel, but then (smile) I never trust those back covers. The Family Trade isn’t the “Next Best Thing”, and it certainly isn’t as fun as the much-referenced Amber Chronicles. But you think you might enjoy a gangster or crime thriller with a fantasy twist — check it out!

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